Planning a year of study in another country can be a daunting task. The rewards can be great—both personally and academically—but ensuring that you get all the credits you need at a foreign college or university can be a tricky endeavour. Understanding the various options and procedures before you go, however,can make the process just a little bit easier. A bit of extra work beforehand will ensure that your credits are transferred back to your home university smoothly, so when you’re abroad, all you’ll have to concentrate on is having the experience of a lifetime.
Rowena Selby is the education abroad advisor for the Queen's University International Centre (QUIC), which sent about 1,700 of the university’s 40,000 students overseas in the 2007/2008 academic year. She suggests that before students consider studying abroad, they first sit down and assess what they’d like to get out of the experience.
“[I’d recommend that they] think about what their personal experience is and what they hope to get out of it,” suggests Selby, “to do a bit of a self-audit, a bit of a self-reflection to make sure that if they do this they end up in a place that’s right for them.”
Assessing your options
Selby explains that there are three main options for studying abroad and the procedure for applying varies for each. The most straightforward way is through a formal exchange between your home institution and an institution in a foreign country. In this case, you would apply at your home university from a list of established exchange agreements they have with foreign universities. And if accepted, in this scenario, you’d pay tuition fees to your home institution for the period you’re abroad and avoiding paying international fees to another university.
Formal exchanges between partner universities have the advantage that the universities are familiar with each other’s procedures and curriculum, simplifying credit transfer. But they can often be competitive and there are not always enough places for the number of applicants. Also, if you want to go to a specific country where your university doesn’t have a partnership with a local school, you’d need to look beyond formal exchange programmes.
A second option for studying abroad is to apply directly to a university overseas, although, as Selby explains, applying directly can require more legwork. She suggests that before applying, students are recommended to speak with staff in their international office and then of course, to faculty within their department to determine whether a course abroad is considered equivalent to one at home. You may need to present faculty in your department with the outlines of courses you’d like to take and demonstrate which courses they’d be equivalent to.
Once you’ve confirmed that credit will be transferred, you will apply directly to the host institution. It would be your responsibility to find out about and meet all deadlines. If your application is accepted, you will need to get an international letter of permission from your home university giving you permission to leave the institution temporarily and earn credits toward your degree at another university. The procedure is similar at many universities, but do always check with your international office for information specific to your school.
When applying directly to another institution, you are required to pay international fees. This could either be more, or less, than at your home university. “Some people can be really put off by that,” explains Selby, “because they immediately think international fees are going to be huge, but of course that depends on where you go. Certainly there are some places you can go where you’d be paying less than you would be at your home Canadian university.”
If doing this on your own sounds too daunting, there is a third option. There are a number of reputable organizations that can help you with the process of applying directly to another institution—for a year, semester, summer or even a full degree program. Selby explains, “A student who has travelled before and who is able to take initiative quite easily, I would encourage them to do it on their own because it’s cheaper…it’s certainly not every student that can do that…A lot of students do seem comforted by the fact that there are organizations that will help them get in to these places.”
Chad DuMond, is manager of Canadian development at GlobaLinks Learning Abroad (AustraLearn, EuroLearn and AsiaLearn), an organization that helps students through the process of studying abroad. He always recommends that students apply to an exchange programme first. “The positives of an exchange are that they’re cheap,” explains DuMond. “They’re an inexpensive opportunity for students to get abroad. I always encourage students to apply for an exchange. You have nothing to lose, and if you don’t get in there are other options if you can afford them.
EAs exchange programmes can be extremely competitive, according to DuMond, with many students vying for a limited number of places explains that an organization like GlobaLinks can step in to fill the void. But placements arranged through a study abroad organization are not subject to the same limits. “We don’t have limits to the number of students who are going,” explains DuMond, “and there’s a huge variety of option. For example, you may have a university in Canada that has two exchange partners in Australia, whereas we have 25 different universities that students can choose from…the negative is they’re paying international student fees.”
Even if you’re enlisting the help of a study abroad organization, the process of applying and making sure you’ll get credit at your home institution will likely be similar to applying directly to another institution. While you’re ultimately responsible for liaising with your school and the host institution, a study abroad organization provides ample support and guidance through the enrolment process, registration, visas and even staff in the host country. This is a particularly valuable feature for a novice traveller who might need more support throughout the process.
Allow time to plan
Another difference between a university exchange and an overseas education experience organized with the assistance of a study abroad organization is the lead-time needed. Selby recommends that you start planning about a year in advance to ensure that you meet any deadline that you may encounter, though it’s not unheard of that students do it in a shorter amount of time. But DuMond says that deadlines when applying through a study abroad organization are often more flexible than a formal exchange. “We don’t need that much advance warning, students can apply rather close to when they want to leave.”
Bill Clabby, executive vice president for research and special programs with International Studies Abroad (ISA), another study abroad organization, acknowledges that you might not need to allow too much lead time to plan and apply, but you might want to in order to maximize your options. “To be safe, start at the beginning of college. For example, if you want to go to Spain and study with Spaniards, you might need to take Spanish for two years before being able to go. With a non-Western language, typically you’d need three years of college-level language until you could take classes in that language,” says Clabby.
Clabby recommends that students become savvy consumers and look at what each study abroad organization offers in terms of academics, financial considerations and support. Firstly, Clabby suggests, ask yourself what courses are offered and what courses do Iyou need to fulfill. This might include getting syllabi, course descriptions and information about course content that meet your home university’s requirements.
In terms of the financial side, don’t just look at the programme fee, but check out which sources of financial aid or funding you can take with you. Lastly, consider how much support you might need through the process and when you’re away: Do you want to be picked up from the airport? Do you need help finding housing? Would you like an orientation programme? According to Clabby, quality study abroad organizations will have experienced support staff in the host country, who are available to help students at any time.
At the end of the student’s international experience—whether it’s on a formal exchange or through a study abroad organization—the academic courses the student has taken need to be assessed by the home university. Selby explains that at Queen’s University, students who take courses abroad are assessed on a pass/fail basis—so it wouldn’t affect a student’s grade point average (GPA). This is something to Selby says this is common practice, but do ccheck with your own university. Selby also recommends that students get a transcript of marks from courses taken abroad because it may be useful when applying to academic programmes in the future.
The process of applying to go abroad may seem intimidating, but your international office is there to guide you through the process. Ultimately, once you’ve finished the maze of paperwork and you have the opportunity to actually live in another country, it will all be worth it.
DuMond is adamant that it’s an experience that will forever change your perspective on life, whether it’s through a university exchange programme or a study abroad organization. “Just go,” encourages DuMond. “No matter what you do, do your homework and go. It’s going to change your life.”Add this article to your reading list