The problem is that most universities are weak on experiential and applied learning. That’s where studying abroad has true value:
Studying abroad is experiential learning and applied learning rolled into the best semester to year of your life.
Experiential learning is any learning that occurs outside the classroom. Teaching experts recognize that it is more effective and beneficial than classroom lectures. No matter how good the professor, a classroom can never give a well-rounded view on any subject. But if you spend your whole degree at your home university, your classroom is likely all you’ll experience.
Study abroad is experiential learning in every sense of the word – even inside classrooms. Every day, you will encounter unfamiliar situations and ideas. You will face new cultural beliefs. In your classes, you will see different styles of teaching and interaction. You will be learning about your host culture – education, sociology, economics, politics, business – through personal experience.
But you won’t only learn about your host country or culture – you’ll learn about yourself. In fact, more of that than anything else.
Studying abroad also gives you the chance to practice applying your studies – connecting them to the real world. That connection is essential to getting lasting value from your education.
Applied learning can take many forms, such as Project-Based Learning or Service Learning. When you take the content of a class and see how you can use it to solve real-world problems, you’re getting a ton of value. These are wonderful opportunities, don’t get me wrong, but they cannot match studying abroad for broadness of their application.
When you’re studying abroad, you’ll have the change to apply a wide variety of past studies: language, culture, history, economy, politics, business, geography, and even engineering. Being part of another society and culture and analyzing the differences helps you see real applications of classroom theories.
Applied Learning: Japan
For example, when I studied in Japan, I was intrigued by the difference in personal outlook. Japanese people (still) seem to me to be pessimistic, especially compared with Americans. I saw that some of that came from space – Japan has an intense population destiny and little livable land. That’s resulted in a society that sees personal advancement as a zero-sum game. The country is also subject to natural disasters, and the impact of that history on the national consciousness can be seen in the engineering focus on rescue-application robotics, earthquake resistant architecture, and preservation over ostentation.
Looking at my host country through the application of economics, history, geography, politics, and sociology has helped me understand it better – and also enhanced my appreciate for those subjects. Once I’d had the practice applying them in one situation, it became easier to do it in others, as well.
How to Find Study Abroad Programs that Excel in Experiential and Applied Learning
The best programs will give you the chance to study the culture in and out of the classroom. Regardless of your field, look for courses that use the host country as an example or focus. That way, your studies will relate directly to your extracurricular experience.
If you’re already in an environment where you don’t have locally-focused courses available, don’t give up! Another way to link your studies with your study abroad experience is to do it virtually. Linking back to a faculty member from home who teaches about your host country is one way to have an academic anchor for your experiences and strengthen the relationship between studies and real life.
1. Find a Research Placement
- Build researching ability while digging into practical research into new subjects that you couldn’t possibly get in the classroom.
- Learn about research priorities, budgeting, and politics in another country by being part of the process.
- Bring your previous field knowledge to bear on new research.
- Understand your environment through application of sociology and cultural research on your host country.
Working as a research assistant allows you to build a close bond with a professor from your host country. You’ll get to learn more about your field from his or her unique perspective: a combination of personal experience and cultural biases. With your professor as a lens, you’ll also come to understand more about your own biases toward your research.
Working in a lab in another country allows you to double-dip. You get the value of the research itself, just as you would at home, plus the additional value of studying the research environment in another culture.
2. Take Local Social Science Courses
Your extracurricular activities become a frame of reference for the theories and examples you cover in class.
You can leverage your course content to better understand and fit in to your host environment.
Taking courses about your host society while living in it provides an instant connection between life and studies. Your living situation is a lesson in local economics. Your sociology course can help you better understand the locals you interact with.
And when you visit historical or cultural landmarks, you’ll have a deeper understanding of what they mean to everyone around you.
The connection between class and life that you build during study abroad does not have to stop there. Once you have the experience of a deep association between the two, you will be able to recognize similar connections after you return home.
3. Take Courses with Local Students
Regardless of the course subject, you’ll be learning about the education system in your host country and interpersonal relationships.
You will likely have a different background in the material from local students. Raising your understanding in discussions is one way to apply your past learning to your present situation.
You never want to end up in a situation where you’re “studying abroad” in a class that’s only for international students. OK, so that’s unavoidable if you’re studying the local language, but you want to make sure there are at least multiple cultural backgrounds present.
When you study with local students, or international students from other cultures, you’re studying one another in addition to whatever the course is about. You’re experiencing the way each other communicate and work together on projects. You’re each applying your own backgrounds to discussions.
Pay attention to the use of language, as well. Studying in the local language is applied learning. You’ll be putting your previous classwork to use. Studying alongside local students in your native language is experiential learning. You’ll learn by experience the way they communicate using English as a second language and how it differs from what you’re used to. Applying that understanding later is going to help you succeed in any international endeavor.
Finding Your Own Experiences and Applications
Experiential learning and applied learning, by their very nature, require you to take action.
Don’t limit yourself to only the opportunities that your university promotes. Go out and find ways to get involved in the community – on or off campus – to deepen your experience. Every interaction you have is an experiential study in international relationships as well as a chance to apply what you know about the culture.
Whatever you do, don’t let FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) keep you in your room refreshing your facebook feed. If you’re afraid of missing out on what’s going on at home, you will miss out on all that is good about study abroad. It’s a self-fulfilling fear.
Here’s what to do instead:
4. Take a Cultural WorkshopExperiential Learning:
Learn about the local culture and values by participating in traditional activities.
Apply your new understanding of cultural aesthetics and sensibilities to your interaction with other participants and friends.
Getting involved in a hands-on cultural workshop is a fun way to explore your host culture. Song, dance, art, or other rituals get you involved in the community. As you learn the steps and procedures, you’ll find the values of your host culture woven in. We value our cultural activities precisely because they reflect our values.
When I joined a taiko (Japanese drumming) group during study abroad, I was surprised by how much emphasis we placed on the visual aspect of the performance. Everyone had to raise their sticks at the exact same angle on each strike. There was a specific movement to complete before and after playing. So much emphasis on unison – even solos came across as being a group activity. That experience became a focal point for my understanding of Japanese group consciousness.
Some of the best cultural workshops mix practical lessons and discussions. I had to develop my theory on taiko drumming myself, but that’s not always the case. The Tea Ceremony teacher at my university has lessons dedicated to discussing the values and aesthetics of the ceremony. One student remarked that discussing cultural values with a class of over half a dozen nationalities was one of the most valuable experiences of his study abroad.
5. Go on Cultural ToursExperiential Learning:
Visiting sites you have only read about before brings them to life and helps you visualize their true impact.
Compare what you’ve studied to the representation at the site itself, and to local reactions, to better understand how the country views its own past.
Your university may arrange cultural tours for you. If so, that’s great! But you can always find similar activities on your own, as well. Dig up a guidebook at your university library and plan your own trip, if you have to.
I’ve found that when you visit historical sites, you may find the local memory to be very different from what you read in textbooks. Military history museums are particularly divergent, in my experience. (If you’re ever in Tokyo, visit the history museum at the Yasukuni Shrine and study the World War II section. You might come away feeling bad for the noble, doomed Japanese military . . .) But these museums tell us what the country remembers of its own history and culture.
Visiting local sites is also particularly interesting to learn how your host country promotes tourism. Near my university in Akita, we have a few local cultural focal points. One of these is a museum dedicated to gods called Namahage that come around on the lunar new year to make sure everyone has been behaving themselves and not getting lazy during the winter. It’s fun to visit – and attend the performances. But in the end, despite all the local promotion, it isn’t exactly a magnet to bring in place loads of tourists from around the world.
Yet, this is what the locals are proud of and promote to outsiders. It helps you understand their values and sense of local community. And that knowledge will help you better understand not only your current hosts. You will be able to find similar patterns throughout life.
6. Study the Local Language
Every interaction in everyday life is experiential learning in the local language.
Similarly, you will have endless chances outside of class to apply your language ability.
Studying the local language improves your ability to interact with the community and get more value out of your experience. You’ll be better able to understand conversations, local media, and signs, as well, so it makes your time easier and more enjoyable.
You can also learn how locals express themselves. Study their idioms and speech patterns and connect that to how they speak English. This knowledge can be extremely valuable for future interactions. It will help you avoid misunderstandings and resolve conflicts.
Understanding cultural nuances about how many Thais speak English once prevented an embarrassing argument for me.
When I taught in Thailand, my pay was late one month. After checking my account balance at the ATM, I texted my employer on the spot to ask when I would be receiving my pay for the month. She replied back within half an hour saying “I already paid you.”
Once, I would have understood that as her insisting that she’d paid before receiving my message. Fortunately, I knew by then that many Thai English speakers use “already” unnecessarily in any past tense situation. So, she wasn’t contradicting me (or what the ATM was telling me). She was reporting that she had transferred the payment after my message but before her reply.
Study Abroad is Your Opportunity to Shape Your Learning
During study abroad, you create your own narrative. You aren’t restricted by textbooks or your professors’ opinions. You have personal understanding and experience.
Every day during study abroad is a valuable experiential learning opportunity. They will help you better interact with your host culture while you were there, plus they can connect to further academic study.
Studying abroad is also your chance to apply what you’ve learned so far. Your college education is only as valuable as the applications it has to real life. Applied learning study abroad puts you a step ahead of your classmates who won’t get that until after graduation. So you’ll be able to get more value from your remaining classes, but visualizing applications in advance, and you’ll be ahead of the game when it comes to resumes and job interviews, too. The experience of applying your learning abroad will help you express how you can apply it to your career, as well!