Students Reflect, Share Advice on Study Abroad Experience

The Széchenyi Chain Bridge in Budapest, Hungary. Photo courtesy of Christina Wang '22

With 250 programs in 60 different countries, Swarthmore’s off-campus study program is incredibly diverse, offering students a wide array of opportunities to immerse themselves in an entirely new environment. To gain insight into this process, the Phoenix attended an off-campus study general information session and interviewed community members on March 17.

The information session was led by college alum Umi Keezing ’19 who now works with the Study Abroad office. Keezing, who studied abroad in Ireland during her time at the college, explained how the study abroad program is designed to be accessible to all Swarthmore students and stressed that anyone is eligible to apply, presuming they are in good academic and conduct standing, have no incomplete classes, and meet other program-specific requirements. 

The college offers several different programs, including embedded study abroad, direct enrollment, exchange programs, third-party providers, hybrid programs, and petition programs. 

Each of these differs in structure: with embedded study abroad, for instance, students take Swarthmore classes with a study abroad component. In direct enrollment, students enroll at the host institution; with third-party providers, students study overseas but at a U.S.-based university; during hybrid programs, students work with a study abroad provider but register for local classes; lastly, students can petition a program if none of the current ones suit their needs.

With many options to consider, the Off-Campus Study Office suggests starting by thinking about what each student values. Students have very different goals for studying abroad, including language learning and immersion, internship or community engagement, fulfilling major-specific requirements, or something else entirely. 

When asked about the one piece of advice she has for other students, Christina Wang ’22, who studied abroad in Budapest in the Fall of 2021 through the Aquincum Institute of Technology (AIT) third-party provider program, echoed the importance of finding study abroad programs that reflect students’ personal goals.

“My biggest piece of advice is to think about your goal for studying abroad,” said Wang. “For example, it could be to travel to a lot of new countries, be immersed in your study abroad city, or to learn a language better. Then finding like-minded individuals or just being mindful about what you want to get out of your experience will best help you maximize your experience.”

To apply for a program, students are required to read the Off-Campus Study Handbook, attend a general information session, complete an advising sheet, and then set up an individualized meeting with a staff member of the Off-Campus Study Office. 

The Off-Campus Study Office guides students through the entire process, providing personalized support along the way. Most students apply to one to two programs and receive their decision within two to three months. 

Ashley Huang ’24, who is currently studying abroad in Prague through the Undergraduate Program for Central European Studies, described the ease of the application process. 

“It was really simple. The most difficult thing in terms of applying to the program was writing the personal statement, but everything else could be done in less than 30 minutes,” Huang said in an interview with the Phoenix. “Aside from UPCES, I also applied to the Council On International Educational Exchange (CIEE) in Amsterdam and Temple University in Rome.”

In regards to the application process, Keezing suggested that students get a head start on planning out their experience. 

“I would always recommend starting the process as early as possible. Come to a general information session even as a first-year so you know what’s ahead of you and what you need to do because there are a lot of details and processes involved in studying abroad. Oftentimes, students are taken aback by some of them,” she said.

Asked about academic rigor, Keezing explained that each program goes through an internal approval process and must meet Swarthmore’s academic standards. The actual nature of the academic work, however, can vary from program to program. More importantly, Keezing explained, the programs must all offer something unique that can’t be found in traditional learning opportunities at Swarthmore. 

“A lot of programs have more hands-on learning opportunities that Swarthmore doesn’t necessarily offer … And so because of that, the actual in-classroom experience can be less reading and problem-solving for some students, but there still is a lot of other learning that’s going on. Most students say that they do have the chance to enjoy where they are and not spend all their time working.”

Huang described her own experience abroad, in contrast to her on-campus workload, as less academically rigorous, giving her more time to explore and immerse herself in a new setting.

“The course load is not rigorous at all — it’s very much an ‘enjoy being abroad’ program vs. an academically oriented one. It honestly feels like a vacation compared to Swarthmore,” said Huang. “Life here is a lot less centered around work and a lot more about enjoying life in a new city and traveling.”

Wang agreed that her course load at AIT was also less demanding than Swarthmore’s curriculum, but more so than most other study abroad programs. However, when comparing Swarthmore to AIT, Wang emphasized the importance of social and cultural immersion. 

“AIT tends to attract computer science majors from other liberal arts colleges and private universities, so I found very like-minded people. The experience was very different [from Swarthmore], though, because the focus was more on learning from the experience of traveling, being immersed in a new culture, and meeting new people rather than just academics. I did not know anyone going into the program, so I grew a lot from having to start from scratch socially, similar to starting at Swat,” she said.

Unlike Wang, whose study abroad cohort mainly included students from other colleges and universities, Keezing recalled studying abroad with other Swatties.

“I had this whole cottage basically to myself. Having that new space so close to the beach and being able to walk there with my friends from Swarthmore was really exciting. It did still feel like I had the Swarthmore community with me, but it was in this completely new context. We were able to form new experiences but still be connected to Swarthmore and each other,” she reflected.

While Keezing said she loved her experience abroad, she also acknowledged the sometimes difficult process of adjusting to a novel environment.

“Swarthmore does a lot to make students comfortable. The dining commons are right there, most students live on campus, and it’s all very sheltered in a way within this small community,” she said. “This is often not the case abroad. Students often live in their own apartments or with other students. And often they’re cooking meals for the first time or learning how to pay rent in some cases, so it is an early introduction to adulting. And many students say that this is a great way to start to prepare for the experience of actually living as an adult after graduation.” 

When asked about her own difficulties with the abroad experience, Wang explained how she had to travel relatively far to get to class every day. Even though commuting initially seemed inconvenient, Wang soon viewed it as an opportunity to explore her new environment.

“I was so used to being at Swat where everything is a ten-minute walk away, whereas now it took 40 minutes on the train to get to class every day. But by the end of it, I came to enjoy the commute, as it went through such pretty areas of the city and it really prepared me well for commuting to work post-grad.” 

Keezing also described how some students struggle with identity abroad because the culture is entirely different. She recalled her specific struggle with her cultural and racial identity while studying abroad in Ireland.

I’m half Asian and half white, but when I was in Ireland, there was this consistent disbelief that I was from the U.S. and this focus on me being Asian because everyone else was white,” she said. “Different societal views surrounding diversity and identity are often a real shock to a lot of students.” 

Keezing emphasized the importance of preparing for these types of experiences. To address these differences, students can speak with other students who have had similar experiences and also practice self-care strategies. There are also resources on the Off-Campus Study website for navigating diversity and identity abroad

Despite these navigational challenges, Keezing recommended that study abroad students truly immerse themselves, even if that means focusing less on academics. 

“Going abroad is really this once-in-a-lifetime chance to spend an extended period of time in another country and have that be covered by your financial aid and included in your academic plan. And it’s really important that while you’re there, you do everything that you actually want to do in that location,” she said. “Make sure that you make the most of being there even if that means letting go a little bit academically.”

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