Lifelong Learning: A Natural Result of Studying Abroad

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever. Mahatma Gandhi on lifelong learningHave you ever found a subject that interested you so much you wanted to study it even if it wasn’t assigned? I never did – until I studied abroad.

Studying abroad was the step that took me from “learning to get a grade” to “learning for its own sake,” or lifelong learning. Before that, I did well in school. I knew I needed to: to get a scholarship, to get to college, to graduate top of my class. . . . Profit? I didn’t really have any idea what came next.

Does that sound familiar?

Studying abroad in Japan (a country I didn’t choose!) changed everything for me. I became fascinated with Japanese history and culture. When I came home, I shifted my academic path from aeronautical engineering (I never cared about it, but I thought being a pilot would be neat) to history and East Asian Studies. My passion for the subject carried me on through grad school, as well.

It turns out, I’m not unique. According to an IES study of program alumni, 90% say studying abroad changed their future academic decisions. And over 50% went on to master’s degrees or higher, compared to 9% of the population overall.

Why? Because we build a passion for lifelong learning.

Defining Lifelong Learning

“The concept of lifelong learning requires a shift away from . . . the acquisition of special skills to broader discovery and the releasing and harnessing of creative potential.”

“Lifelong learning” used to be a codeword for night classes at high schools to teach working adults new skills. You’ll still see it used that way by schools or community centers promoting computer programming sessions, or trade skills. But that’s not what we mean.

Lifelong learning is learning how to learn and finding the excitement and motivation to keep it up without external incentives. How to learn what? Anything. Whatever strikes your interest. These days, I still study Japanese language and culture, but I’ll also pick up a book or a podcast on any number of topics that I want to learn more about.

There’s a quote questionably attributed to Einstein (or a half dozen others): When you stop learning, you stop growing. I don’t think it goes far enough.

When you stop learning, you start fading away. Because the rest of the world is still learning and growing – and leaving you behind.

Study Abroad and Lifelong Learning

So, what does studying abroad have to do with lifelong learning? Exposure and contact.

If you’re like I was heading into study abroad, with no real passion, studying abroad can help you find it. You’ll be exposed to a variety of new ideas and ways of thinking. Plus, you’ll have a new frame of reference to look back on your home culture in a way you never did before.

If you’re already set on a passion, then studying abroad is a chance to pursue it in depth from new angles.

What to Look For in Your Study Abroad Program

“My year [of study abroad] was the single-most important year of my education, or perhaps more broadly, my growing up … I became so excited by the city and its history and, outside of [our professor’s] philosophy courses, was so encouraged by him to explore Vienna more. I know I feel permanently attached to the city, and in the time in my life, that I feel I first became vividly aware of other people’s lives all around me.” – John Irving

Like John Irving, you want to find a location that’s going to excite you and motivate you to explore more.

The greater the difference from your home culture, the better. The more new ideas and cultures you can encounter, the better chance you’ll have of becoming excited to learn more. Some particular characteristics that help encourage lifelong learning are:

1. Courses in Locally-Focused Social Sciences

jumpstart lifelong learning by studying history while you visit it in person

Studying local history helps you better appreciate the sites you visit. You’ll learn why there is no silver in the Silver Pavilion.

You want a program that offers you social science courses – history, economics, politics, sociology – about your host country. Through the coursework, you will better understand your experiences outside of class. You will find more value and inspiration in your encounters.

Studying Japanese history transformed the temples and shrines I visited in Kyoto from pretty photo opportunities to meaningful destinations. I found a bridge with scars in the posts that I normally would have passed by. But I knew those were sword scratches from a minor rebellion. I ended up pausing there on the sidewalk thinking about what the street would have looked like then, and what would have motivated that group to fight against ridiculous odds.

Even more mundane activities became more interesting. Understanding a little bit of the senpaikohai relationship between senior and junior members made tennis practice more interesting.

Learning is more exciting when it is connected to action. The excitement you build during study abroad can motivate you toward pursuing lifelong learning long afterward, as well.

2. Locally-Focused Project-Based Learning

If you want to get even more in-depth, then project-based learning is guaranteed to connect your studies with action. Plus seeing the results of your actions is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have, whether at home or abroad. In PBL, learning something new isn’t just about memorizing facts for a test – each new bit of knowledge is something you can apply in practice.

When you participate in PBL, you’ll be working with people from different cultures and leveraging that difference – and the ideas that come out of it – to achieve something together. When you work together with students from around the world, you’ll learn, and put into practice, new approaches to achieving your goal.

3. Small, Shared, Professor Taught Classes

lifelong learning benefits from open exchange of ideas in small diverse classes

Smaller classes mean greater engagement and idea exchange.

OK, I’m rolling several characteristics into one, but these are the ideal classroom conditions to contribute to lifelong learning.

Most of your motivation for lifelong learning will come from your experiences outside of the class. However, the classroom environment is also critical for exposure to new ideas and as a laboratory to explore them in more detail. Group projects and solo research are opportunities to explore your experiences academically and connect learning to practice.

Small classes are key, because they offer the most interaction. Class discussions, peer feedback, and access to the instructor will help you focus on your interests and study them in depth. You’ll have more flexibility to learn on your terms.

Shared classes with local students and diverse international students are best for exchanging ideas. Getting different cultural perspectives on your experiences and theories can lead to new research topics and things to learn.

Finally, professor-taught classes (as opposed to TAs) give you access to someone with extensive research experience in the field. Your professor can help you figure out what resources you need to pursue your interests and keep you moving on your learning path.

Taking Initiative to Start Lifelong Learning

Lifelong learning doesn’t happen by accident. It doesn’t happen if you’re waiting for inspiration. It’s something that you go out and seize by engaging in things that interest you.

While everyone’s interests and pursuits are going to be different, here are a few ideas to help get you started.

4. Intern, Serve, or Work Off Campus

Get off-campus and see the real world, like farming and local production

Get involved in the community to encounter people and ideas that you won’t meet within the university walls.

Getting involved in the off-campus community gives you the widest variety of new encounters that can spark an interest in lifelong learning. Internships or service learning are some of the best ways to interact in an environment that combines learning and practical outcomes. Even a part-time job can help if you approach it as cultural immersion, rather than only a way to make a little extra on the side.

Some of my favorite memories from studying abroad were participating in service learning. I went out to schools to interact with kids, play games, and teach them a little about my country. In return, I got to see what their education system was like and how the interactions I observed between my classmates started at a much younger level. I had to leverage my fledgling Japanese language studies during these visits, and to explain things about America that I’d always taken for granted, so it gave me a reason to learn more and do better next time.

I also got to help participate in festivals and other events through the Rotary Club. That gave me the chance to think about how Japan remembers its past compared to America. In retrospect, it’s no surprise I became a history major to learn more.

Interning or working abroad gives you the chance to learn about the business environment. Plus, it’s great resume fodder.

Even if your internship or job doesn’t excite you right away, it will bring you into contact with people and ideas you couldn’t meet if you just stayed at the university. It will also help highlight similarities and differences with your home culture and give you another possible topic to explore through lifelong learning. In fact, 80% of IES survey respondents said that interning abroad influenced their career choice.

5. Participate in Local Culture

join local performance groups to practice learning new skills and see the benefits of your progress.

Getting involved in cultural activities isn’t just fun, it’s a chance to learn a new skill from zero and inspire further development.

Whether you take a workshop in local art or performance, or you get involved with cultural celebrations, getting immersed in the local culture is a good way to find an exciting topic to pursue during lifelong learning. Plus, as a beginner, you’ll have the motivation to study, practice, and improve.

One of my favorite memories from studying abroad was joining the Hyozu Daiko Japanese drumming group. I had never played a percussion instrument before, so I came in with a steep learning curve. But that meant I saw real progress nearly every week at practice. In the end, I was able to perform with the group at a festival with thousands of attendees.

That experience of going from zero to performing reinforced the joy of learning something new and helped me prove to myself that I can do it. Studying abroad offers similar opportunities no matter where you go. There is always something new to try. As the foreigner, you’re likely going to find a warm welcome and encouragement as you move forward, too.

Building the love of learning new things through cultural experiences is rewarding and addicting. It will strengthen your interest in lifelong learning.

6. Join Campus Events with Local Students

Learning comes from exchanging ideas, and the best way to encounter new ideas is to expand your network of friends. Joining on-campus events is a great way to meet other students, especially local students. It can be tough to reach across the divide between degree-seeking and short-term students, but events are where everyone is most open to new friendships and connections.

You’ll already have something to talk about beyond simple introductions, based on the theme of the event. You can assume that local student attendees are interested – whether it’s a concert, festival, performance, or competition. Get their opinion on what’s going on and compare it with your own. Learning to understand each other’s cultural perspectives and ways of thinking can be one of the most exciting and motivating exchanges.

Each and every conversation you have with students from other backgrounds has the potential to spark a new interest and drive you to pursue lifelong learning.

Studying Abroad Leads to Lifelong Learning

From the minute you arrive in your host country, you are learning and experiencing direct benefits from your newfound knowledge. Learning about your environment and personal relationships has a direct impact on your quality of life. You’ll pick up new ideas and skills from scratch and grow them to practical and long-term interests.

Even small accomplishments abroad are magnified. The first time I went shopping alone in Japan for a rare item (baking weights) and communicated my need to the store clerk without relying entirely on gestures, I was thrilled. I gained faith in my ability to develop a new skill and saw the practical benefits. You will have similar experiences and, if you’re like me, that’s going to drive an interest in lifelong learning and new applications.

Educational psychologist Barbara L. McCombs cites conditions for lifelong learning that sound like a description of studying abroad:

  • Seeing education as personally relevant to your goals: Your courses and extracurricular learning during study abroad directly contribute you your quality of life. You learn to apply classroom learning to real-life situations.
  • Believing that you have the skills to accomplish your goals: You will gain experience developing new skills from scratch to meet your goals and gain faith in yourself.
  • Control emotions and moods that interfere with learning: Studying abroad makes you more tolerant of other ways of thinking, so you can look at new ideas from an objective perspective and gain the most benefit from them.

For me, studying abroad has led to lifelong learning. I am still learning and improving my Japanese language skills every day. I have gained faith in myself to pick up new skills and learn to do them well (like blogging). It is no stretch to say that, thanks to my study abroad experience, learning has become one of my greatest pleasures.

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