Article by GVSU alumna Erika Schmitt (Spain 2013)
Studying abroad is an invaluable experience with numerous benefits: traveling, job marketability, gaining global perspective and cultural competency to name a few. Time and again, students refer to it as “the best decision I ever made.” Whether studying abroad has always been your dream, or is a recent pursuit, how to start the process may seem daunting. Where will you go? When will you go? How long will you be gone? What living options are available? Will you be housed with or studying with other international students? Will the classes be taught in English or the native language? Will your classes transfer? And perhaps most importantly, how will you pay for it?
How to start:
Do a lot of research. I visited Grand Valley’s Padnos International Center (PIC) for help in learning about study abroad opportunities early on. I knew I wanted to go to a Spanish-speaking country and I longed to travel Europe. Spain became my ideal destination. At first I wanted to go for my entire junior year, but it became apparent that I would need further preparation. It turned out that the winter semester of 2013 better suited my plans.
Once I had chosen Spain, I still had the question of which program to attend. I finally chose a program that had a partnership with GVSU. My mind was set when I spoke with former students and a GVSU professor who studied at my host university. They were able to tell me first-hand what to expect. When researching a program, I highly recommend that you ask to be put in contact with a former study abroad student from that program.
Some study abroad purely for the cultural experience. In that case, taking classes taught in English is appropriate. My main goal in studying abroad was to gain language proficiency though immersion. If you have this same goal, carefully research host institutions that maximize the immersion experience. I suggest living in a home stay with a family that speaks only the native language. Try to find a program in which most international students are from non-English speaking nations. You will likely be faced with the temptation to speak English regardless; locals often want to practice their language skills with a native English speaker. Maximize speaking the native language by enrolling in classes taught in that language and studying with students that do not speak English.
When I had chosen my country and program, the next step was to complete the paperwork. First, I filed the study abroad application via the PIC’s online system, OASIS. The application included essay questions, releasing my information, submitting two faculty recommendations, giving emergency contacts, paying the $100 deposit, and signing a risk release form. After being accepted to the PIC, I applied to my host institution’s study abroad program. From there, I filled out further pre-departure forms on OASIS. They included an expense form, course approval form, health information, medical insurance, my flight itinerary and passport information.
The PIC helped me fill out the expense form based on previous students’ costs. For the course approval form, I had to provide the abroad course information, the GVSU equivalent course information, and then acquire a representative’s signature from the corresponding GVSU department. If the course was on the PIC’s pre-approved list of courses (available on the PIC website), I did not have to obtain a signature. The health information was a basic questionnaire that I was able to complete in minutes. The medical insurance I purchased was already documented as part of my program costs, but insurance is also available for purchase through GVSU. Once in a selected program, OASIS allows you to message other GVSU students who are in that same program. I took advantage of this and booked my flight with another girl in my program. We copied our itineraries and uploaded them to OASIS so that the PIC had them on file. I took care of my passport at one of the PIC’s convenient passport fairs and made a copy for their records. To study in Spain, I also had to travel to the Spanish consulate in Chicago to get my VISA.
After all this, I still had the concern of financing my trip. I quickly found out that Spain is many students’ ideal destination. If I wanted to get financial aid to help me realize my dream, I had to be compelling when it came to writing scholarships. I decided to apply to some scholarships that were offered in the PIC. I applied for the Mark A. & Elizabeth C. Murray Scholarship, the Johnson Leadership Scholarship and couple others that related to my study abroad program, as well as my major. Unfortunately, I did not win any of these.
Fortunately, I did not give up. Amanda Cuevas, director of the Frederik Meijer Office of Fellowships, introduced me to the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship. The Gilman Scholarship aims to help students who may not otherwise study abroad achieve their dreams. Students from two and four year colleges who demonstrate financial need are eligible. With a lot of time and effort, as well as Amanda’s know-how and support, I was able to shape my “dream” essay and win the Gilman Scholarship. It covered approximately half of my study abroad expenses.
The PIC recommends that students begin the scholarship search 12-18 months in advance of their study abroad programs. I discovered that the money is there, but you need to apply, pay attention to deadlines, revise your essays several times, and above all, be prepared to defend why you deserve the opportunity to study abroad. This is achievable, especially with the resources available at GVSU. Those in the Office of Fellowships as well as the Writing Center are able to provide information and give guidance on the way to applying for scholarships like the Gilman Scholarship. The Office of Fellowships offers workshops, and the Gilman Scholarship website offers newsletters that are full of tips and strategies for scholarship applicants to succeed.
Preparing to study abroad is a lengthy but rewarding task in light of all the discoveries and opportunities that await you in your host country. For instance, you are bound to discover norms different from your own. Depending on your destination, the degrees of differences vary. Contrary to my expectations, I did not experience a culture shock when I arrived in Spain. This is likely due to the Western Culture that both the United States and Spain share. Even with the similarities, discrepancies existed. For example, there was an astounding lack of toilet paper, soap, and sometimes toilet seats in public restrooms. Also, when it’s your birthday in Spain, you go out and buy everyone else a drink or snack (tapa in Spain, or where I was in northern Spain, pincho). As it happens, I came home two weeks before my birthday.
I found a multitude of opportunities available to international students at my host institution. These opportunities included: scheduled excursions, a mountain hiking club, a conversation club called the Spanish Table, the Tandem Program (where students exchanged an hour of conversation in their native tongue for an hour of conversation in Spanish), and the annual Colloquium on World Languages and Cultures. Other opportunities available to all students (not only international) included sports, choir, and volunteering. Students who volunteered helped with children, handicapped individuals and immigrants. Through this opportunity, I helped young students with their homework in an after-school program. It was a valuable experience that tested my Spanish in new ways.
In addition to all of these amazing opportunities, the student affairs director of my program in Spain was an incredible friend and connection for me and my peers. He was intent on seeing students have a good time and he often gave us free tickets to local events. He constantly shared job and internship openings through Facebook and email. Through one of these emails, I came into teaching an English course at a nearby elementary school. Many of my peers found jobs that paid well as tutors or nannies.
I am more than happy to talk with future study abroad students and answer questions. Please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with me at www.linkedin.com/in/schmitterika. If you are interested in starting the study abroad process, check out these informational resources:
- Visit the Padnos International Center in 130 Lake Ontario Hall www.gvsu.edu/studyabroad
- For more details on the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, visit www.iie.org/gilman.