I am currently studying international studies as an international student in Seoul, South Korea. I’ve spent collectively almost three years abroad from the time I was an undergraduate student until now. Everyone should spend time abroad and the best time to do it is when you’re a student. Students have the unique opportunity to set time aside to just think, meet new people, and explore. Although there are challenges associated with living and studying abroad, the benefits far outweigh any potential costs.
Traveling and studying abroad forces students to confront new issues and new perspectives. As Mark Twain once remarked, “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…” While studying abroad I have been introduced to new viewpoints, schools of thought, and scholars. Professors and fellow students have challenged some of my previously held views and helped me think about issues in a new light. These added perspectives have helped me understand issues more thoroughly – something that I think we can all agree is useful in politics and international relations.
However, studying abroad is about so much more than traditional academics. Often the ‘abroad’ overshadows the ‘studying’ and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Learning is about experiences as much as it is about textbook knowledge. Mark Twain’s remarks are not limited to knowledge gained in the classroom. Living in a new culture often forces people outside of their comfort zone, creates cross-cultural connections, and demonstrates that there is more than one way to do things. A lot of my learning has occurred outside of the classroom.
Moreover, spending time abroad is as practical as it is idealistic. The world is rapidly globalizing and having international experience is a valuable asset. Studying abroad gives students a chance to gain experience, to acquire or perfect a foreign language, and also to expand their network.
Spending considerable amounts of time abroad is not always sunshine and rainbows though. Most people assume that homesickness is the biggest challenge facing expats; however in my experience that’s not the case. I find the biggest challenge is the language barrier. Chores like going to the bank suddenly become a whole ordeal. When I first moved to Korea, I couldn’t speak a single word let alone read anything. On the flight to Seoul, I learned to say ‘thank you’ and the basics of the alphabet – thankfully the Korean alphabet is extremely intuitive. However, communicating is still a challenge.
Not being able to communicate is a horrible feeling – instantly your ability to function as a responsible adult is crippled. There is nothing more humbling or more motivating. Seemingly overnight, I was able to order my coffee in Korean – priorities. Shortly afterwards, I was able to have basic conversations. Speaking with friends and classmates was a natural way to pick up useful vocabulary. Yes, English is becoming an international language of sorts, but there is nothing more satisfying than being able to communicate with someone in their native language. Also, speaking the local language unlocks more opportunities and enriches cultural experiences. There are many challenges, but instant, tangible results help ease the pain of learning a foreign language.
Furthermore, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the all the red tape and paperwork needed to spend time abroad. For instance, finding employment on a student visa is a catch 22 – I need a work permit to get a job but I can’t get a job without having a permit. Not to mention the mountain of paperwork required to get a visa in the first place.
Cutting through all the red tape is time consuming but not impossible. Most universities have an office devoted to foreign students’ issues. The internet is also a wonderful resource. There are plenty of official sites and personal blogs that can help navigate even the trickiest immigration issues. Armed with the right information, appropriate documentation, and the patience of a saint the majority of obstacles are conquerable.
Living and studying abroad is not always a piece of cake and there will be challenges, like finding a quality burrito. However, I wouldn’t trade my experiences for all the burritos in the world.
 Twain, Mark. The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It. Ed. Guy Cardwell. New York: Literary Classics of the U.S., 1984.