The Benefits of Studying Abroad for an Academic Year

Miranda Arakelian CC’17

“One of the biggest reasons that I recommend studying in Berlin for a whole year is the way it allows you to immerse yourself in the culture during the first semester and really reap the benefits your second semester.”

I hope by now you’re familiar with the incredible resources that Columbia’s Office of Global Programs and Fellowships (OGP) has to offer; if not- get thee to 606 Kent Hall! The program that I participated in during my junior year was Columbia’s own Berlin Consortium for German Studies (BCGS). This program offers a year-long or spring-semester option for students who are looking to immerse themselves in German language and culture in Berlin. I hope you’ve already had the chance to look over BCGS’s offerings and are interested in the program, and now that you’ve decided to apply, you may be trying to decide for just how long should I go abroad? And I hope some of my experiences can help you decide whether to go for a semester or a year!

When I was a sophomore in CC I was lucky enough to have two BCGS alumnae working as peer advisors, and throughout my application and abroad experience they were incredible resources (if there’s a peer advisor for your program, reach out to them! Or ask OGP if they can connect you with a former student!). One thing that left me especially grateful was their encouragement for me to go to Berlin (or study abroad anywhere, really) for the whole year instead of one semester. Looking back, I’m so glad I had those students give me the little bits of encouragement that I needed to push me into doing a year-long program, and I hope my comments can help voice that same encouragement!

One of the biggest reasons that I recommend studying in Berlin for a whole year is the way it allows you to immerse yourself in the culture during the first semester and really reap the benefits your second semester. When you first arrive in Berlin, you may face quite a few roadblocks in your first few weeks or months: housing troubles, endless lines for visas, frustrating experiences with language-learning, to name a few! I think for me and most of my friends, the first month or two abroad were by far the most exhausting. From here the math is simple: if you go abroad for one semester, you’re spending almost half of your time in this settling-down period! When you go for the full year, you have your first few months to get things in order, and then months and months to live comfortably in your newly-found apartment without giving a second thought to your visa!

This can be especially helpful when you’re facing a lot of culture shock and language issues. I know that I showed up to Germany with my language skills needing a lot of work, and I was still timid, scared, and uncomfortable speaking for the first few months! I’m so grateful that I was able to get really comfortable with the language and culture during my homestay, and then I still had 9 months to use it and improve. Having so much time after this getting-comfortable period was what allowed me to really take advantage of my language and culture skills and try out new jobs and other extra-curricular activities in the spring.

During my spring semester I was able to get an internship and expand my circle of German friends, and I was also able to do a second academic semester that didn’t feel like I was being thrown into the deep-end! With one full semester at a German university under my belt, writing the second semester’s final papers and keeping up with work was much easier. During the first semester I’d been so focused on just trying to keep up; during my second I could keep up and race ahead! I completed some really great final papers and felt up for enrolling in some challenging courses.

Of course, going abroad for a full year has its downsides; maybe you’re worried about leaving your friends, your club activities, or your family, for so long. Weighing these pros and cons will be a unique choice for each student, but what I can add is that being abroad for a year will give you access to countless benefits that you can’t even measure right now. As you make your mental (or written--it can’t hurt) pro-con lists, keep in mind that there’s a whole host of “pros” that you don’t know yet. Maybe you’ll meet new best friends abroad, maybe you’ll try out a new sport at a local university and wonder how you lived without it, and maybe you’ll be able to volunteer and dedicate yourself to political or social issues in the new host country. I and many of my friends who went for the year were able to develop our language and cultural skills so much that we were able to return to our abroad countries with job or fellowship offers, so don’t worry too much about how going abroad will hurt your career prospects. If anything, studying abroad will contribute to the transferable skills you can bring to a job. And if you’re going to Berlin, the six week break between semesters provides an amazing opportunity for an immersive internship.

I hope that now, as you consider a year- or semester-long study abroad program, you have a slightly better idea of the number of pros that you don’t yet know. For me, going abroad for the year was a really wonderful choice, and I feel so lucky that I had alumnae of the program giving me advice and support. It may feel like a risk, but I hope that this think piece can give you a little encouragement to think seriously about going for the year-- I don’t know a single student who regrets going for the year, but I do know that almost all of the students I know who went for only one semester wished they had more time at the end of their stay. Going abroad for a year may take extra planning in terms of fulfilling core/major requirements, but it is an option well within your reach if you plan well! I advise you to head to the OGP office and speak to the advisors there; the advisors and former students are incredible resources and in my experience everyone is excited to support you and help you make the best decision for your situation.