Photo by Kristen Mahoney
Photo by Kristen Mahoney

Who are you and why do you want to go?

Most study abroad programs require application essays.  These essays typically serve as proof that you can form cogent sentences and have put some thought into your decision to apply for an international experience.  Give the program staff a chance to get to know you and impress your host institution with thoughtful, well-crafted essays.

  1. You might think your life is boring, but you still need to introduce yourself in an engaging and compelling way.  The “tell us about yourself” essay can be the hardest one to write, especially if you think that by going abroad, your life is just beginning. When writing your biography, you don’t need to worry as much about the historical facts as the essential factors that made you who you are.  Even if you spent 18 uneventful years living in a functional household surrounded by picket fences and puppies, there are still lots of factors that affected your choice of major and your intellectual and personal interests.  Focus on the things that affected you intellectually, like favorite books, important classes, or skills that you’ve learned.  Share your interests and hobbies…a dedication to a sport or craft says a lot about your passions and personality.
  2. The flipside to “my life is too boring” is “my life is too full of drama.” We have become a culture of over-sharers.  While an illness or difficult family situation may have been the most formative experience of your life, it is important to convey this information in a clear and dispassionate manner.  Remember that your program acceptance is never based on health or disability status; you will have an opportunity to disclose this later in the application process. If you choose to disclose a family tragedy or hardship in your essay, keep the facts brief and clear without going into tawdry detail or not maintaining your privacy. Focus instead on how you developed from the experience.  Restraint demonstrates maturity and keeps the focus on your abilities rather than your soap opera.
  3. Writing about your goals. Most study abroad essays will require that you describe “why you want to participate on the program.” The following answers are not sufficient: “it would be really cool;” “I’ve always wanted to date someone with a ___ accent;” and “I just want to go somewhere.”  This is the time to reflect on why your destination piqued your interest…was it the music, the culture, the food, the history?  What kinds of classes are you hoping to take and how will they fit in with your degree progress? Do you have personal goals of gaining intercultural skills or travel? Sharing these ideas lets your program advisors know that you’re putting thought into your decision and you will be willing to prepare for your adventure.
  4. Writing about transitions. Many programs require an essay to discuss how you have transitioned in life.  This is a great indicator of how well you will do when you arrive in a completely new destination, need to use a new language, and navigate a new system.  If you haven’t had a lot of life transition, talk about the transition to college or learning how to be successful in a new job or activity. Describe how you have been willing to try new things and be flexible and how you keep school and life balanced.  If you’ve had difficulty transitioning, talk about your lessons learned and the tools you have to transition in the future.
  5. Remember to keep your essays in your own authentic voice while deploying proper usage and good grammar.  Double check the spelling for the places you’re applying for…a Welsh university would cringe at receiving an application for your “Study Abroad in Whales.” You don’t have to sound stilted; the essay should sound like it is coming from a college student with a real life and real goals. Have a trusted proof-reader take a look at your essay, or take it to the Writing Center on campus for feedback.
  6. Save a copy of those essays.  They may provide the foundation for a scholarship essay or application an in the future.
Matt Jager, BA in Music, BA in International Studies, 2009
Matt Jager, BA in Music, BA in International Studies, 2009

Matt studied at the Universidad de San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador for a year, and then returned the following Christmas for a special research project.  His goal?  To listen to and be inspired by the sounds of Ecuador.

I have always been interested in a diverse range of topics.  When I came to college I had difficulty choosing a degree, because I did not want to limit myself by choosing just one field of study.  After a lot of soul searching, I finally decided to study music, a longtime love of mine.  However, I still wanted my education to have a global scope.  I needed to be able to learn the technical aspects of music, but I thought it equally necessary to be cognizant of the worldwide issues that are dramatically shaping the world that we live in.  Fortunately I found the International Degree, which allowed me to expand the reach of my studies.  Through my thesis project, a soundscape composition exploring Ecuadorian culture through its sound environment, I was given the opportunity to utilize what I had learned in music to explore themes such as globalization, modernization, intercultural interaction, sociopolitical disparities, and other prominent issues.  The whole experience, from studying abroad, to the research, to the writing and composing, turned out to be profoundly moving.  I can easily say that my international experience has been one of most beneficial aspects of my education.

There’s nothing like jumping into student life to get acquainted with a new culture.  Here’s what Kayla Whittington had squeezed in just the first  two weeks of her study abroad at FuJen University in Taiwan.

Day #19

I have been here for 2 1/2 weeks already! I can’t believe it. It seems like I have been here for so long, but that I still have so much time to go.

Wednesday for out culture class we did some hands on cultural cooking! We made a dessert called a moon cake that is made in the harvest time to celebrate the moon festival. They are made of red beans that are covered in a sweet dough. They are kind of sweet and very good! We also made meatballs that were covered in rice and then steamed. I of course could not eat this since I am a vegetarian, so they made me and Shauna (our graduate student/TA who is also a vegetarian) ones that were made from tofu and vegetables. It was very nice of them! I had my first test of the term on Thursday, we do not have grades back yet, but I am pretty sure that I did well. On Thursday I also did something very exciting, I joined a club on campus! I bet you can all guess what kind of club… dance! It was so much fun. It was more of an aerobics class, but I still enjoyed it. I am not sure if I have ever sweat so much in my life though, it was 90 degrees in the room to start with, then 100 people started dancing around in it! But it was such a great time. It was weird walking into the group and sitting down because everyone looked at me (more like stared) and smiled. They were all so excited that I was part of the group. Another thing that is interesting, is that when I see people here working out, they are wearing their regular clothes. I am pretty sure that I am the only person aside of the instructors that was dressed down for the dance class. I can’t imagine doing anything like that in everyday clothes! I don’t get to perform with them because they do not do that until December when I am gone, but it will still be great to hang out!

Friday night was so much fun! I finally got to eat sushi! I have been waiting to eat sushi ever since I have arrived here. The place that some of the Taiwanese students took us was great! There was a little conveyor belt that went all around past the tables and you just picked what you wanted off of it. It is so inexpensive compared to at home. I paid a little less than half for just as much sushi as I would get at home! I am going to go there, (or another place some of the girls found that is close by) at least once a week! After dinner we went to see the movie “Burn After Reading.” I was not exactly what I thought it was going to be…. but the movie theatres are so much different here! They are about 1/10 of the size! There is so much less seating and the screens are so much smaller. The street that had the movie theatre that we went to was called “Movie Street” by the students here. It had many different movie theaters that each played 2 or 3 movies. It was so different.

Some of the girls and I were going to head out to Maokong on Saturday. There is a zoo, hiking trails, gondola ride, and beautiful tea houses on the side of a hill. But because of the stinkin typhoon we are stuck inside again. It is more serious this time, it is equal in strength to a category 5 hurricane. There are parts of Taipei that are flooded, but we are safe here. Just lots of wind and rain, like last time. But I don’t mind that class is cancelled tomorrow, I just don’t want to have to sit inside again all day long. I am getting cabin  fever!

Kayla in Taiwan Kayla Whittington is a senior in HDFS and Education. She studied  in Taiwan in Fall 2008 on a College of Health and Human Services study abroad program at FuJen University.  Read more about her adventures on her blog:

I’m not a dancer. This isn’t an attempt to solicit a compliment or to lower social expectations if the event should arise that I must dance in front of others; it is just a simple fact. It is not even a question of ability; I just don’t feel comfortable dancing and find it mentally difficult to understand how others can boogie the night away in a rhythmic euphoria of steps, moves, and gyrations. At least that was my mindset in the U.S.Katie Parker Climbing in Chile, Spring 2009

We have all heard the stereotype that all Latin American people, especially women, can dance. While I had several interesting conversations about this with my Chilean friends (it is not true and quite offensive, so don’t spread that nasty generalization), I did find that music is more present in Chilean culture, and it is more common to dance at parties and social functions than in the United States. This cultural propensity for expressive movement made me a bit nervous the first time I was dragged (literally, we are talking about a fear of dancing that I have here, people) to a club in Santiago. Would I be expected to know some crazy American steps? Would any one dance with me? Would others publicly scorn me and make a wide circle of nightclub shame around the gringa? As we can see, some of these fears were slightly paranoid and hyperbolized, but needless to say, I was more than a little apprehensive when walking into the warehouse/reggaeton club.

After all that fear, I was pleasantly surprised that not only does my body actually move in ways that could be called dancing, but that I actually enjoyed it. My previous dreadful experiences of preschool dance class (I lasted one day before I asked my mother not to take me back), school dances, and choreographed numbers for drama productions were erased as I swayed with the hundred other youths to heavy bass beats. Not everyone there could have auditioned for a music video, but it was more the willingness to move to the music that was appreciated and welcomed. The atmosphere was more low-pressure and inclusive than my other dance moments. Not only that, but I was asked to dance, or at least I ended up dancing with a very nice boy, as the formal asking didn’t seem part of Santiago club culture.

Now, this doesn’t mean that I turned into a major clubber or that I now plan on dedicating my life to interpreting all emotion through dance, but I appreciate more the social role that dance plays in bringing people together. Although I still wouldn’t list dancing as my favorite activity, I now fear it less. Study abroad is above all a chance to stretch your limits, and I can proudly say that I stretched quite a lot. I’ll even dance in the United States now, a little bit, maybe, when no one is looking.

Katie Parker, Junior in History and University Honors College, studied through CIEE in Santiago, Chile for Winter/Spring 2009.

photo by Jocelyn Hepner, on holiday in Paris
photo by Jocelyn Hepner

Students often ask us, “Where should I go?  What would you choose?”  While we can’t choose the program for you, we’re here to help find one that best suits your needs and meets your goals.  Here are some questions to consider when making the decision about which program to apply for.

Do I want to learn or be exposed to another language? Is my language level high enough to take college-level courses in the language or do I need to take electives in English?

Do I want to be on a program where I live with host country nationals, either in a dorm or homestay family?

Do I want access to classes and student life at a university or would I prefer to be with American students?

Big city? Medium-sized city? Middle of nowhere?

What are my budget constraints? Can I realistically rely on financial aid? What will the total costs of the program be?

Do I want a program that will allow me to earn credit toward my major or minor? Do I want to focus on bacc core requirements? Am I interested in earning language credit?

What kind of support do I want to have on site? Do I want to tap into campus and other local resources? Is it important to have a resident director specifically for my program or am I independent enough to work directly with the international students office on campus?

Read through the program materials, seek out impressions of former students, and check out a guidebook.  Try to imagine your life in that environment, and if you like what you see, you’re on the right track.