I review hundreds of transcripts every year for study abroad applications, and I often find students who had a sharp increase in grades after a year or two. Why? They found their passion. I’ve even met students whose discovery of an academic passion helped them overcome anxiety and depression.
Every student I’ve followed up with has started their story the same way:
Well, I went abroad and . . .
And now, they’re studying abroad again to follow that passion further.
Why is studying abroad such a great opportunity to find your academic passion? Because it takes the emphasis off studying.
Academic Benefits of Studying Abroad
The GLOSSARI Study found that students who studied abroad saw greater GPA increases, both during and after Study Abroad.
The Erasmus Impact Study also showed an increase in academic performance among study abroad students. And that’s after controlling for their already higher pre-study abroad academics!
But it isn’t just the classes you take that are going to help you. It’s finding the motivation and the passion for your studies. Finding your academic passion will drive you to go beyond the course material and syllabus requirements because you’re truly interested. Your grades and career will follow.
Where to Find Your Academic Passion
The best way to find your academic passion is to connect your studies to emotionally significant experience. So, the programs that offer the best extracurriculars, plus locally-focused courses and small classes, will serve you best.
1. Research Assistant Placements for International StudentsIf you have the opportunity to apply for a research assistantship during study abroad, go for it! Even if you’re not passionate about it, yet. The best way to find a research passion is to throw yourself headlong into something.
You may develop a passion for your research topic, or you could find a connection from that research to something else that interests you more. I have found that sitting back and sampling a variety of topics is a sure way to choose nothing. Diving in as if you are passionate, but also keeping your eyes open, has a far better chance of success.
So, why not do this at home? Because, during study abroad, you’re going to be exposed to new ways of thinking and research. The contrast between your research assistantship abroad and the way of study at home is a significant part of the value.
Plus, pursuing a research assistantship abroad gives your the opportunity to change your mind. If, at the end of your semester, you find it’s not for you, you’ll have no obligations. You’re going home anyway. So, worst case scenario, you’ve ruled out one potential passion and you’re free to keep searching.
2. Off-Campus Internships AvailableInternships, especially in a non-profit or social entrepreneurship organization, can help you connect your personal experience to an academic passion.
Getting involved in an internship can help you find practical outcomes for your studies, or a new topic that you can apply. You’ll see the direct benefits of your actions. That sense of accomplishment and making a personal difference can fuel a building passion.
As an international student, you’ll have a unique chance to make a difference that you wouldn’t at home. You’ll stand out more and have one more skill to leverage – your language ability – than you would otherwise. It could be something as simple as teaching English to local children that pushes you toward a new academic passion. Don’t discount any opportunity!
Depending on where you study, you might also encounter a completely different set of social issues and problems requiring assistance. That can open your eyes to a new set of possibilities.
Even in the world of business, an internship can help you find your academic passion. For example, a new perspective on the market, or research toward new product ideas.
Regardless of where you intern, use that experience in class. Reference it during study abroad and afterward, in a senior thesis or term paper. Exploring the academic angles of your hands-on experience abroad can help you stumble on your academic passion even after you return home.
3. Small, Faculty-Taught ClassesIf you’re going to connect with professors abroad, a small class provides the best opportunity. And, obviously, you want direct access to a faculty member who has a passion in the field, rather than a TA.
Small classes offer the best opportunities to connect with both the instructor and other students. You’ll have more class discussions, which means more chances to develop and present your own ideas. You’ll also have to stay on top of the material – no coasting like you can in a large lecture.
If you find a subject that you can be passionate about, classroom discussions can help you define and progress along that passion. Maybe you’ll find another student with a similar interests. Maybe you’ll share an interest with your instructor. In either case, talking with someone who shares your interest on a regular basis is a great way to strengthen and develop your academic passion.
4. Diverse Short-Term International Student Body
Exposure to new, diverse ways of thinking is how you open yourself to finding your academic passion. That’s why going abroad is better than staying at home in the first place.
To increase the value of your study abroad, choose a program with a diverse short-term international student body. Regardless of where you go, most of your interaction will be with other short-term students. You’ll be in orientation and language classes together. You’ll get the same event invitations and notices. And, in many cases, you’ll probably find them easier to talk to, since you’re both going through similar adjustment experiences.
You should absolutely try your best to interact with local students. But as long as you’re spending time with other international students, you want to make sure they are a diverse group as well. If you spend all your time with students from your home country – or worse, your university – you’re really hurting your benefits.
Most new discovery is the result of combining old ideas in new ways. When you interact with local students or international students from other countries, you’re exposed to new ways of thinking. You’ll have a better chance of coming up with new ideas or new ways of looking at things you’d taken for granted. That interaction could help you find your academic passion.
Interacting with a diverse group of international students gives you a chance to sample their passions, as well. If you haven’t found anything to be passionate about, try out your new friends’ interested. As I said above, throw yourself in whole-heartedly, but keep an open mind. You may get excited about the same thing or a peripheral topic. You may also decide after a little experience that you’re not interested at all and move on to sample something else.
Any outcome takes you a step closer to discovering your academic passion.
How to Actively Seek Your Academic PassionThere are a few “discover your passion” exercises at the end of this article that can help you look back at your study abroad. But before we get there, here are some ideas you can apply while you’re there.
The most important thing, which I touched on above, it to throw yourself into whatever you’re doing wholeheartedly. You’re not going to find your academic passion by sitting back and waiting for it to hit you. Committing to pursuing a topic, letting yourself really get into it without holding back, is the only way to get to a passion level of interest.
Do keep your options open, though. Allow yourself to accept that your academic passion might be something other than what you thought. Allow yourself to change focus if you decide your pursuit is not working for you.
5. Get Involved in the Community
Getting involved in the community exposes you to daily life and concerns in your host country. It lets you see economics, politics, and sociology as they really affect people, rather than as material to memorize for a test. It also lets you experience the differences between the cultures first-hand.
Making a connection between your studies and your personal experience helps to find your academic passion. For example, before I studied abroad in Japan, I knew that Japanese students had high test scores and that there was intense pressure to succeed. When I went abroad, I got to see how that affected real people. I spent time in a school for those who had been “weeded out” of the competitive system. The students around me had no hope left for anything beyond labor or craftsman jobs. It was shocking to see that decided at a high school level.
The difference in societies that I experienced first-hand also helped motivate my future studies. Those high school students who already had their paths determined were nothing like students at home in the US who believed they could still be anything. I came to see that same sense of fatalism and lack of control in other areas of society, too, all stemming from education.
You might find a field other than education. Maybe arts, culture, business, or engineering. By experiencing the local way of doing things, as compared to your home, you can discover a passion to pursue, as I did.
6. Take Locally-Focused Courses
In addition to your personal experience, taking courses on your host country can help build your understanding and nudge you toward an academic passion.
Depending on your major, it may be hard to find courses that focus on the local country. I would recommend making that a precondition of selecting your program, if you can. But even if a course isn’t strictly in your major, as long as you have the credit flexibility, go for it!
Any course that introduces you to local methods, approaches, and ways of thinking will help. You will better understand and value your experiences outside of class and be able to link them to your studies. That connection between deep, personal experience and academic material can spark or strengthen your academic passion.
Your Academic Passion – After Study AbroadIf you find your academic passion during study abroad, hold on to it! Don’t let sliding back into your home country lifestyle chase it from your mind. Keep up with the connections you made abroad, and keep your focus on the topic. Work it into any paper, presentation, or other assignment that you can. Not only will that help you keep it in the forefront of your mind, it should also make those assignments go easier!
Think about grad school as well. If your passion is something that needs more research or instruction, you’ll have to make that decision soon. Or maybe you need some practical experience, first, such as a job that takes you back to your study abroad country. Looking for an international job or for graduate school is going to take time, so don’t wait to get started. Your connections from studying abroad might have some useful advice!
If You Didn’t Find Your Academic Passion Abroad
That’s OK, you’re still better off. I’m not saying you’ve blown your only chance or that it’s going to be harder now.
You’ve spent a semester or a year exploring academic passions by now, so the key is to build on that. If you have a general idea, then working with a mentor, like your academic advisor or a professor you respect, can help you narrow down your interests. If not, there are still several ways to leverage your study abroad experience to find a new, even unrelated, passion.
Find Your Passion Exercises
Most of these have been borrowed from entrepreneurship websites and articles. I don’t know why it seems that only entrepreneurs care about their passions. It seems to me like anyone making a life’s work decision should take similar care.
- What is your tennis ball? – A dog will chase a tennis ball for hours. What is something you can do for hours on end without even thinkgin about it? (Credit: Drew Houston, vis Fast Codesign).
During your study abroad, you probably had a lot of downtime. You weren’t surrounded by the same friends and the same activities to fall into without thinking. What did you do with that time?
- What is something you believe that almost nobody else agrees with? – When you’re surrounded by people from other cultures, this can be a particularly interesting question. I’m not talking about religion, or the perfect pizza topping. Think bigger. Something about people, or the world. Something you believe can be changed for the better. (Credit: Peter Thiel).
Now that you’ve experienced living in another culture, what have the differences taught you? What possibilities have they opened up?
- What is your superpower? – What can you do better than almost anyone else? This is one of the most common entrepreneurship passion questions. After studying abroad, did you learn that you do something better than most of your peers? Did your new environment bring about a new skill?
The feeling of success breeds passion, so if you applied a skill successfully during study abroad, you might already be feeling excited about that and ready to take it further.
It’s OK if it doesn’t come to you right away. It didn’t for me, either. In fact, it took years of general focus on “I want to get back to Japan.” But that was enough to keep me reaching, keep me searching. In the end, it was my study abroad experience that came through!