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I Couldn’t Afford A “Traditional” Study Abroad Program — Here’s What I Did Instead

Ah, studying abroad. Half the reason you enrolled in college in the first place, right?

Me too. In fact, when I started looking to study abroad through my school, I was excited — ready to jump up and go. But as a transfer student, studying abroad ended up being much more complicated than I expected. The more I researched, the less sense it made to study abroad through my university.

The Factors Working Against Me

For one, I’d already completed my general education requirements at a community college, leaving only my upper-division courses to be taken. And these classes couldn’t be taken abroad. So all the classes I would be taking abroad would just be extra units to pad my GPA — classes that I did not need.

For another, the study abroad office at my university was very unhelpful and actually discouraged me from applying because I was so far along in my degree. As a public school, my university received more state funding if students graduated in four years or less, thereby giving the school incentive to push people through as quickly as possible.

And of course, the massive cost of studying abroad through my university was the final nail in the coffin of my dream to go with my university abroad. Paying for flights, food, accommodation was expensive enough, but add the cost of classes while abroad, and it was too much to afford without taking on debt.

Researching Alternative Study Abroad Options

I got into the program of my choice in Europe. My first instinct was to take it and run. And I almost did. But I knew the financially sound decision — turning down my study abroad offer — was the right one to make, even if it was hard. It felt like I was turning down my dream.

I was still determined to spend some time living and learning in a foreign culture, though. I knew I wanted to do it one way or another. As I worked while in school, I figured out I could afford to study abroad at a lesser price, but I had to be smart about it. So, I started researching more broadly for programs in Europe. Resources like BUNAC and Cultural Vistas were helpful, but their programs weren’t the right fit for me.

Settling For A Different Kind Of Experience

In the end, I decided that learning another language was the best way for me to study abroad, as I would be able to take classes and make friends at a decent price. The cost of tuition for a month-long language class was cheaper than one class would cost at my university. And so, after a lot of research, I registered for a month of German classes through Germany’s state-run language program, the Goethe Institute, in a town called Freiburg.

When I started the course in June 2019, I was nervous. I didn’t know anyone, I barely knew German, and I had to find my way around with limited offline maps. But I made it to Germany (and more specifically, I made it to my residence, which was a miracle, given how utterly incompetent I am with directions) and when classes started, I knew I made the right choice. The teaching was excellent (shout out to Louisa!) and my classmates were wonderful. Exciting cultural excursions were offered each week and gave me further opportunity to get to know people and to explore the region. “Yes” became my response to every new thing, and I can only tell you that I had the time of my life in Freiburg.

The Advantages Of Direct Enrollment

The total cost of what I call my “independent study abroad trip” came out to less than half of what my school’s program cost. Though I was not able to get class credit, I still came away from my program with an experience I will never forget, more knowledge of a language I love, and many friends from many corners of the globe.

I think a huge advantage to direct enrollment in a language school is not only the price, but also the autonomy I had to exercise. I was there because I wanted to be there. I managed my time because I wanted to have fun and learn German. Things happened because I made them happen, not because I had to fulfill any requirements. People say the greatest motivator is often intrinsic, not extrinsic, and I can vouch for that.

My study abroad experience gave also me a serious confidence boost — I was able to navigate my way through a foreign country with limited language knowledge. I was able to make friendships in a relatively short amount of time, despite my social anxiety, and to really open up to people. I learned so much about myself thanks to my time in Germany. It’s also helped me fully realize how important cultural experiences are to me. In fact, after I graduate with my bachelor’s, I just might become an au pair, to learn more German and travel the world. Consider my horizons broadened.

If I had to do it all again, the only thing I would change is to stay longer. Ich hatte die beste Zeit in Deutschland!

Heather is a proud Californian, and as such, survives solely on a diet of avocado toast and iced lattes. She is an English Literature major in her senior year at California State University, Fullerton and is looking forward to one day becoming a teacher (one who’s obsessed with dogs and books, so the best kind).

Image via Pixabay

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