Students should seek nontraditional study abroad experience

Emily Caldwell

Over the course of the 2014–2015 academic year, 3,703 UT students studied abroad. Fifty-five percent of those students, however, completed their academic work in European countries, primarily France, the United Kingdom and Spain. As UT students looking to get the very most out of our higher education, we should instead make the effort to study abroad in non-Western locations.

According to the International Office’s annual report for that year, only 20 percent of students studied in Latin America, 15 percent in Asia and 4 percent in Africa. Studying abroad as a college student in these nontraditional locations, however, offers more benefits to students than conventional, European countries do. If students truly want to diversify their experiences before they graduate, no environment does this better than one that’s drastically unfamiliar to the normal American college student.

Amy Exah, the assistant director of faculty-led programs at the International Office, actively encourages students to be okay with pushing themselves outside their comfort zones. She notes there is much to be gained from studying abroad in nontraditional countries, such as a diversified resume.

“I think a big key part of studying in a nontraditional country is that you gain this really unique, marketable expertise. When someone lives in a place that not many people have been to, it sets them apart instantly,” Exah said. “You have this local knowledge that’s going to come into play in a student’s future career, on their CV — so many marketable skills.”

The sheer cost of different programs — another factor that plays a crucial role in many students’ decisions — offers yet another upside to studying abroad in nonconventional locations. As Exah points out, these countries are typically cheaper to live in, and UT even offers more financial aid and scholarships as a way of encouraging students to study in these countries. “The cost of living is often much lower than living in London or somewhere in Spain,” Exah said.

Overall, though, it’s the culture shock that makes these nontraditional countries worth it.

History junior Allie Schauer can attest to this, having recently returned from a Maymester in Ecuador. Schauer admits that there were frustrations, unexpected setbacks and uncomfortable situations, but emphasizes that every challenge presented an opportunity for self-improvement and self-reflection.

“In the best of ways, this trip pulled me from the tunnel vision of my little problems as a student and young person in the US,” Schauer wrote in an email. “I think that the best way to grow is to get uncomfortable and try something new, which is hard to do in some of the more popular trips that go to countries with cultures nearly identical to those in the US.”

The benefits of studying abroad have been well-known for quite some time now, but it’s time for UT students to demand more out of our education. Straying from the typical study abroad experience and heightening our exposure to diverse lifestyles and cultures can only yield benefits in the long run, especially for personal growth and future career advancement. They might be harder trips, but they’re well worth the challenge.

Caldwell is a Latin American studies and journalism sophomore from College Station.