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Go Early, Go Often: How to Study Abroad More Than Once and Graduate On Time

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Greetings, vagabonds and travelers-in-training. It seems that every day more and more people find higher education to be beneficial, if not downright necessary in order to obtain the jobs that they want. If you are part of this crowd, but you can’t imagine spending three to five years working towards a degree without hitting the road, you have probably already considered study abroad. Most people who study abroad do so in one shot: they may spend a summer, a semester, or a year in one foreign location.

Vagabonds, naturally, are not “most people.” As with any addiction, an addiction to travel has different levels of intensity. Some people study abroad once and are satisfied, not planning to leave the country in the foreseeable future. Some people study abroad and love it, and intend to travel again after graduation. And some people, the minute they get home from one trip, start planning the next one. I myself am a part of the latter category. If you have the urge to do a significant amount of traveling, you should consider doing multiple study abroad programs.

View from dorms at Stellenbosch University in South Africa

View from dorms at Stellenbosch University in South Africa

To be completely up-front about this, not everyone who wants to do multiples is able to, due to different university and major restrictions. But it may be a possibility, and it’s definitely one worth considering. After all, if you’re going to travel and you’re going to study, why not combine them? If for some reason you can’t do multiple sessions abroad, remember that you can always travel independently, but if you’ve never traveled by yourself, study abroad can be a great way to learn the ropes.

Here are some steps to determine if studying abroad multiple times is an option for you:

Step 1

Ask your study abroad office. Some universities have restrictions on whether students can study abroad more than once. You may get a direct yes/no answer, but often it’s not so simple. Since there are many different types of study abroad programs, there is often some flexibility – some programs may be limited while others are not. For example, summer faculty-led programs are usually unrestricted. Students normally do not take courses in the summer, so it is seen as ‘extra’ education rather than replacing the education at your home university. These special programs are only able to operate if enough students sign up, so the university has a strong incentive to allow students to go more than once.

On the other hand, things like semester exchange programs may be limited. This can be from explicit policy, or because there is more demand than there are available slots. Exchange programs require as many outgoing students as there are incoming exchange students. If University X has ten students who want to go to University Y, and University Y only has one to send to University X, students at University X will have to compete with one another for the position.

Pro tip: Universities in foreign countries which share similar characteristics to your own country are often more popular, and therefore more competitive. This is why Mexico has many Spanish students (common language), Australia has many Americans (common culture), etc. The roles are reversed, though, for ‘non-traditional’ study abroad locations, places which are quite dissimilar from one’s home country. Few students in “Western” countries know enough about places like Botswana, Uruguay or South Korea to know why these places are so interesting. This means there is often a huge demand from the foreign university for incoming students, making it easier to be accepted.

Step 2

Ask your academic advisor. How often you can go abroad depends a lot on your major, but all majors require that students take a certain percentage of their courses at their home university. The amount can vary greatly, even within a single institution. For example, the International Relations department may be very flexible and allow students to spend a lot of time abroad, since it is logical and beneficial for the area of study. On the other hand, a Nursing or an Accounting program may be much more restrictive, because students need to be educated mostly at home to make sure they have a complete body of knowledge on their subject. In all cases, there will be rules around which major and which “core” (non-major, but required by the university) courses can transfer.

When you consult with your advisor, make sure to get everything in writing. If your adviser says anything specific about what classes will be accepted, what you are required to take during each semester, or what your graduation requirements are, write it down. Advisors may advise hundreds of students. This makes them too busy to take proper notes, and extremely forgetful of things of things they have said.

The best way to fix this conundrum is to take careful notes yourself. After your meeting, type up the notes and email them to your advisor, saying something like “this is what we discussed. I just wanted to confirm that I wrote everything down correctly. Is this information accurate?” In this way you can get a written record of what they expect of you. This also lets you be proactive about how credits transfer. When you have the follow-up meeting upon your return, you can lead with “when we met in [date], we discussed how some of these courses would transfer. Here is a copy of the email from the meeting, where we agreed what would be credited.” This technique is a very polite way of making sure your credits transfer as promised: it acts as an insurance policy against forgetfulness or changes of your advisors opinion on a whim.

Step 3

Check your university requirements. All universities require that a certain percentage of credits to be taken at the home university. Read all of the graduation requirements written in whatever official rule list governs your class year: it may be called a course catalog, a yearbook, a rule book, a prospectus or something else. Keep a copy of this document, and make sure that you know the rules in-and-out. For example, my university required either 90 out of 120 credits to be from the home institution, or 60 credits total, including the last 30 taken consecutively at home. Depending on when I went, I could either spend the middle two years of my studies abroad (making sure to continue to meet major and core degree requirements), staying home my final year, or take an above-average credit load when in-country and go abroad whenever I chose, making sure to reach 90 credits at my home university. Many advisors are not as familiar with these rules as they should be, since your circumstances will be unusual. Remember, you have much more invested in your timely graduation than your advisor does. Make sure that you know what is required of you.

Step 4

Consider where you are at in your studies – go early, go often. Now that you know what credits you need, when you have to complete them, and all the requirements you must meet, you can make a plan. In general, the sooner you study abroad, the greater the chance that you can repeat the experience. Earlier in your studies, you need a broader range of classes, so you will be able to consider a broader range of programs. The closer you are to graduation, though, the more specific the requirements become. A Biology student in their third semester may find that they can take dozens of subjects that will transfer towards low-level science requirements and scattered electives. When they go abroad in their second-to-last semester, though, they may have to find a program that offers three or four extremely specific courses in order to stay on track.

To repeat a point from Step 3, always remember: no one is more invested in your timely graduation than you. The more you study abroad, the more unusual your plan of study is compared to normal students, and the harder it is to keep track of. You must be more proactive than any of the normal students if you want to get out on time. The goal is to know more about your graduation requirements than your advisor does.

Step 5

Consider the cost. By talking to your study abroad office, you should have a good idea of what programs your university offers, how much they cost, whether or not financial aid can apply, and if scholarships are available. Study abroad has somehow acquired the reputation of being an expensive affair, which does not have to be true. Often you will find it is not much more expensive than regular studies. In my own case, all of my scholarships could be applied, and going abroad had nearly identical costs in terms of tuition, food and housing. I could spend a semester overseas for what I was already paying plus a few hundred dollars in random expenses and a plane ticket. In schools with higher tuition fees, sometimes studying abroad through private-run programs is actually cheaper than spending a semester at home.

Now that you’ve completed these steps, you should know how much time abroad you can wring out of your studies. Travel the world to not only sate your wanderlust, but to enhance your education in ways that you never could if you stayed in one place. Spend a summer in Mexico to improve your Spanish, and then travel overland to Bolivia for a year. Study for six months each in Berlin, London and Hong Kong to make your International Finance degree truly “international”. Learn about global agriculture in the vineyards near Cape Town and the fields around St. Petersburg. Spend semesters in Shanghai, Tokyo and Seoul to get the most out of that Asian Studies degree.

The whole point of university, and maybe even of life, is to learn and experience as much as possible. A degree does not have to be four long years of classes to get a piece of paper that says you are magically qualified for work. Studying abroad can complement your formal coursework in a way that can help you grow intellectually and emotionally. And let’s not forget, it’s also insanely fun. When life gives you an opportunity, take it.

Coming next Wednesday: How to select a major that’s optimized for studying abroad.

Filed under: Study Abroad, Travel Tips

About the Author:

Tristan Hicks is a compulsive traveler who believes that travel and “real life” can be one and the same. He has combined working and studying with his long-term travels, living in the US, Turkey, Hong Kong, South Africa, South Korea, Estonia and Poland. Tristan recently finished a season teaching at-risk youth in his native Appalachian mountains. He is currently on the road. has written 15 posts on Vagabond Journey.

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Tristan Hicks is currently in: Surat Thani, ThailandMap