Environment systems and sustainability major Ian Bergemann, a junior, says he felt a changed perspective, an open mind and a reinforced passion for the environment when he returned from his study abroad program in South Africa.
“Going over to those other countries helped me build a perspective of a worldview,” says Bergemann, “and that worldview is that, I think, other people are really unique, and we have our own stories, and we all go through things individually.”
Studying abroad was something that Bergemann says he had never seen himself doing. He says the idea scared him because he is a “homebody” and the “baby of the family.” He says he originally saw study abroad as just a vacation and was unaware of what life could be like outside his small town. Now, he has been on two study abroad trips—South Africa and Malaysia—and plans to go to Iceland in the future.
For students like Bergemann who want to study abroad, the application process requires students to meet with a programs abroad coordinator in the Office of International Education. During this meeting, the coordinator speaks with students to determine their interests and what type of study abroad program is suitable for them.
Ina Marshall, assistant director and programs abroad coordinator, says depending on the selected program, the application process varies. There are three options for students, including a reciprocal exchange program involving Southern’s partner universities, a faculty-led program and an approved study abroad provider option.
“I generally recommend to students [that] the earlier they come the better for them, because the earlier we have an eye on them, that way we can start working for them and the less stressful it will get for them,” says Marshall.
Once students start working with the Office of International Education, Marshall says they also need to meet with their academic adviser to approve their study abroad plans and to determine their outstanding degree requirements. For non-faculty led programs, she says, students generally will need to hold a minimum 2.75 GPA and have completed at least 30 credits.
Another big factor is affordability, Marshall says. Costs vary depending on where students travel and the length of the program, but for semester long programs with partner universities, she says, students will be charged Southern tuition because they are simply changing places with another international student. However, she says, it is important students understand their aid package, when applicable.
“We also encourage students to meet with their financial aid officer,” says Marshall, “because if they want to transfer any financial aid that they have, then they have to be in close touch with the financial aid office on campus to ensure the funds are available and that they would be dispersed to them in an organized way.”
English major Zella Collier, a senior who studied abroad in Malaysia, says she went on a scholarship. However, she also says the Office of International Education should make students aware that there are opportunities both inside and outside of Southern to help finance their trip.
Students who study abroad are given a sample budget worksheet to help estimate possible expenses while they are abroad. The worksheet includes everything from the application fee to room and board.
Bergemann says there needs to be more opportunities for students to study abroad without money being a limitation. Even though he also went to South Africa on a scholarship, he says, he still needed his dad to help him pay for it.
“I was really fortunate that I got to go [to Malaysia] for free,” says Bergemann, “but not everybody has that opportunity, and I think if every student had the opportunity to go study abroad, it would change them so much, because it does. The whole trip—you can’t and won’t come back the same person.”
“It’s definitely worth it,” says Collier, “because, when else are you going to be able to, even if it’s expensive? It’s the only time you’ll really have that opportunity to live in another country and learn their language and their routine and then come home and have that experience to compare.”
Marshall says studying abroad can be cheaper in certain countries where housing costs less, but typically students are charged a rate similar to Southern tuition. Once students apply and are accepted, there is $225 study abroad fee, $75 of which is due when the application is submitted. The other $150 returns into the students account for use in the semester they will be abroad.
“As long as they budget appropriately and plan ahead, I feel that study abroad is for everybody that wants or who was the will to undergo that,” said Marshall.
Once students meet with programs abroad coordinators, academic advisers and financial aid officers, Marshall says, it is crucial that students meet the application deadlines. The Oct. 15 deadline is for the following spring semester and March 30 for the following fall semester. The exception is the faculty led programs that have deadlines determined by their advisers. Students are encouraged to plan ahead, because it typically takes at least three months to complete the pre-approval process.
“Our application deadlines are really crucial, because that’s where we gather groups of students and nominate them to our partner universities abroad, so we really encourage students to abide by the application deadlines,” says Marshall.
Before students depart, the Office of International Education works to ensure students are prepared and aware of what to expect when they arrive at their destination. However, Bergemann says, nothing could have prepared him for the emotional impact of going to another country and being a part of their vastly different culture.
“Malaysia really showed me such a different perspective of life. It’s a Muslim country, so that was an interesting experience, to be a minority in Muslim country,” says Bergemann.
Collier says the Malaysia trip was Southern’s first time sending students to study abroad there, so, despite attempts from the Office of International Education to prepare students, there were bumps, road blocks and miscommunication.
“We were all prepared for this rural backpacking trip and they were like ‘only one carry on’ and ‘you need a raincoats and ponchos and hiking boots,’” said Collier, “and we were all prepared to sleep in the mud and we showed up and all the other students from other schools had these huge luggage sets and a different outfit three times a day. We were prepared to be in the jungle and they were prepared to be in a resort.”
The combination of learning about different cultures, meeting new people and immersing oneself in a completely different environment is a big transition, but Bergemann says it has changed his perspective on life.
“To go to another country and sit down and listen to those people and just lend them an ear to hear their story, it makes me feel like I’m trying a little bit, and I’m showing these people that someone cares,” says Bergemann. “So I just think it’s a really rare but important opportunity that should be available for all students.”