Rob Pakalski snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef during his semester abroad in Sydney, Australia. (Photo courtesy of Rob Pakalski)

Study Abroad: Experience the World and Still Graduate on Time

It has long been said that life begins at the edge of our comfort zone, but in today’s heavily regimented society where the standards after high school usually entail going to college, getting a job, and settling down, life outside our comfort zones often go unexplored.

For many students, studying abroad is the ticket to living the best of both worlds. Getting school credit and staying on track while traveling independently to foreign places is a popular way of killing two birds with one stone.

For all its advantages, the percentage of U.S. students who study abroad each year is relatively low. In the 2011-2012 school year, 283,332 American students participated in study abroad, according to statistics from the Native American Financial Services Association (NAFSA). This number represent only about 1% of all U.S. students enrolled in colleges through the nation, reports NAFSA. During the 2012/2013 school year, 703 USF students went abroad, according to the USF Center for Global Education.

So what is it that influences students to study abroad? USF students Melissa Zigrang, Rob Pakalski, and Bailey Wyatt participated in programs spanning across the world for the fall 2013 semester, and have plenty to share about their choice to immerse themselves in completely foreign territory.

For junior economics and finance major Zigrang, choosing Spain as her study abroad destination was beneficial in more ways than just partying in Ibiza: “I wanted to improve on my Spanish, since I haven’t taken a language class in a few years, but knew I wanted to be somewhere in Europe, so I could travel to different countries” she said, “Spain was the obvious choice.”

For U.S. students like Zigrang, meeting academic requirements and staying on track do not always allow for the kind of travel that can truly change one’s life and perspective. According to gooverseas.com, “gap years,” when students taking a year off before college to travel the world, are more common in Europe than in the United States. Study abroad programs have become the American students’ answer to fitting this type of travel and experience into the college curriculum.

By earning academic credit, students like Zigrang, who participated in the Arcadia University abroad program in Barcelona, have found a way to integrate a global education into their schooling.

For senior Entrepreneurship and Innovation major Rob Pakalski, the Boston University Internship program in Sydney, Australia, gave him the opportunity to live and work in a different culture, opening his eyes to different ways of life: “The largest culture shock was probably the lack of emphasis on work,” he said. “Australians have a high minimum wage, so everyone lives quite well, but very few people have a strong desire to be extremely rich and work a lot like in America,” continued Pakalski, who interned at a venture capital firm while in Sydney.

While Pakalski was getting used to working life in Australia, junior media studies major Bailey Wyatt was coming to terms with some different cultural adjustments in Ireland: “I had a really hard time with everyone’s Irish accent and they had a ton of slang I didn’t understand,” Wyatt said of her initial culture shock in Dublin, where she participated in the BU Internship program at Dublin City University.

An Irish accent can take a minute to understand, but living in a non-English speaking country would seem like an even greater challenge. However, according to Zigrang, the language difference in Spain didn’t provide any great difficulties: “Since almost everyone is Spain and many other European countries are bilingual it wasn’t difficult to resort back to English or get help” she said. Surprisingly, Zigrang experienced entirely the opposite of this anticipated dilemma, saying, “for the most part, people were friendly and actually wanted me to help them practice their English.”

Initial culture shock is normal and an important eye-opening part of study abroad. One difference all three students noted was the nightlife, which Zigrang said was one of her biggest adjustments: “In Spain, dinner is around 9 or 10 p.m., and on a weekend, people usually go to a bar to start off the night at 12 a.m. or so, and make their way to a club about 2 a.m,” she said.

Pakalski agrees saying, “I miss the city nightlife, I miss my friends – both Australian and American.”

The nightlife culture that Pakalski and Zigrang experienced differed from Wyatt’s in Dublin: “I didn’t make it out of the city too much. Most weekends I watched Netflix on my laptop until it came time to try and convince the other Americans to come out with me,” she said. “Sometimes I’d take a bus into town and walk around the city, but it wasn’t very interesting.”

Wyatt says that the small size of Dublin was underwhelming, and she felt that within the first two weeks she had already seen everything. “I miss being able to buy potato wedges on every corner, but I definitely don’t miss the less than thrilling night life,” she said.

While returning to Dublin may be unlikely for Wyatt, Pakalski says that after his study abroad experience, living in Australia may be in the cards for him. “I would definitely see myself going back to work in Australia. I am definitely considering moving to Sydney after I graduate,” he said.

For Zigrang, it was the “San Francisco” vibe of Barcelona along with the culture and architecture that stole her heart: “The city had so much going on, the sangria was delicious, the architecture was amazing, and I was lucky enough to have beach weather for part of my stay,” she said. “I absolutely fell in love with Barcelona”

No matter the experience, living abroad gives students new perspectives and stories to bring home, as well as advice for other students scoping out destinations in the future. For anyone considering Dublin, Wyatt said: “Personally, Dublin wasn’t really my scene. The college where I stayed was in a suburb, a 30 minute bus ride from the city center,” she said. She suggests students look into Trinity college in Ireland if considering studying there, because of its central location. She adds: “I have no doubt that if you choose the right program, college, and meet the right people, Dublin has the potential to be really cool. But I wouldn’t do it again.”

While Wyatt encourages other students to do some research before traveling abroad, Pakalski left Sydney feeling he had made the right choice: “I honestly could not be more happy with my decision. Going to Sydney was the best decision I’ve made while in college,” said Pakalski. “I love USF and San Francisco, but studying and living in Sydney was the best time of my life.”

Interested in studying abroad? Schedule an appoinment with USF’s Center for Global Education to find out how studying abroad can fit into your curriculum by visiting them on UC 5th floor.

You can also learn more here.

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