Which is better? A semester abroad or a year abroad? Most students are either not asking the question or have made up their minds. The Institute for International Education (IIE) reported in their Open Doors report for 2011 that 56.6% of US students chose a short-term program of eight weeks or less for their study abroad experience in 2009-10. For the same period another 39.4% studied abroad for one or two quarters or a semester. While the year-long study abroad programs captured only 3.9% of students. Of the three categories the longer programs (one year and quarters/semester) decreased from the previous year while the shortest programs showed a slight gain.
Students are logical people and on the face of it choosing a short program is a logical choice. Campus life is a wonderful opportunity to make close friends. A short program allows for a study abroad experience which does not interrupt one’s routine or friendships too much. Then there is the seeming contradiction of asking students to study abroad in the very year that they finally get to concentrate on their major. Finally, they may not be able to get a reading on the courses or professors abroad as well as on the home campus. All very logical. But here is the problem. Students make that logical choice based on what they know but an experience abroad is unknowable in the sense that it cannot be predicted. Living abroad is about immersion. If a foreign culture is a swimming pool, tourism is sitting on the edge with one’s feet splashing. Shorter programs are sitting on the underwater step up to your neck but longer programs are swimming the length of the pool.
For many people, the first experience abroad is so exhilarating that feelings of loneliness for campus friends quickly evaporate. The first time you smell a spice market or enter a famous building you have only seen in movies, or discover you are actually understood in the foreign language you have struggled to learn can change you for life. It’s like being an explorer and the urge to go on exploring is powerful. However, attending class (it is after all a study abroad program) takes up much of the week so the only available time to truly get out and about is on weekends.
Perhaps assuming they will never live abroad again many students spend the weekends travelling. This is an excellent activity and even a necessary one in order to gain a different perspective on the country but too much travelling can actually frustrate cultural immersion by turning the student into a mere sightseer. A student in London told me he had spent all his weekends visiting foreign cities and had come to the conclusion that a semester had not been enough for him to settle into UK culture. There is no way he could have predicted how much he more he enjoyed the UK and travel. It just happened that way.
Even if a student does not travel to cities in other countries the weekends can be frenetic – a series of mad dashes from place to place. This is ironic because the most attractive trait of studying abroad is the time to digest the culture at a slower pace. Abroad it is easier to amble through streets just to see where they lead or sit at a cafe reading and watching people walk by all day or fall into conversation with the local shopkeeper. When I was a student in Istanbul I used to take the slow ferries with my friends just to enjoy the views. Since the ferries were transportation rather than tourist boats, riding them made us feel a part of the community. For students who bask in the look and feel of other cultures and have settled in with host country friends as well, the end of the semester can feel abrupt. And then regret may set in. They still believe this is the one time they will live abroad and now wish that one time had been longer.
I hope that more students do look at the year abroad option, especially those who already know they want to meet foreign friends (a semester friendship is mighty short). A year is also the better option for those who already know they want to travel a great deal. At least with a year it is possible to visit ten cities without living out of a suitcase every weekend. You will also have more time to hang out with new host country friends who may not have the time, money or inclination to leave the city. This is not to say semester programs cannot provide cultural benefits, just that on shorter programs constant travel (even in the same country) is not the best way to settle in and actually learn about the city or town in which you are living.
Different programs fit different people and the variety of study abroad programs accounts for their growing popularity. Students have a lot of program choices and they also have cultural learning goals. My advice to them is that as students they remember that learning new information is easier and more enjoyable when you do not feel the pressure to cram.