Studying abroad is often described as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and it's certainly true that when presented with the opportunity to live as an international student in a strange environment, you should take it.
What should also be kept in mind, however, is that the experience of studying at a U.S. college does not necessarily end with the conclusion of your time as an international student. There is so much to be gained from studying in America, and the experiences you have as an international student can often affect your plans for the future.
When you're in your late teens and early 20s, it's not unusual to be uncertain about where you're going after you graduate from college. While some people have a definite idea or at least an inkling of what career they want to step into, others have no clue at all. For any prospective students thinking of going to study at a U.S. college, I can confirm that as a student now in my final semester of school, my international student experience significantly shaped my plans for what comes after my looming graduation.
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As such, while studying in America or preparing to travel there, international and prospective international students should occasionally take time to go beyond living in the moment, and consider how time at a U.S. college could affect steps they make toward their future.
If you fall in love with your U.S. college, town, or city – as so many international students do while studying abroad – be proactive about creating a strong base for yourself there.
A classmate of mine who spent a year in New Orleans worked in an internship over the summer and is now planning to save enough money to move back there after her graduation. Make as many contacts as you can, both in and around your college, so that you have a network of people you can get in touch with in case you ever want to return to your American city – or a different American city altogether – after your graduation.
It could be that your experience in study abroad teaches you that the last thing you want to do is travel and try working in a foreign environment. But even if you have no intention of returning to America once your international student experience ends, it's likely you will still pick up some skills and experiences from your time in America that could point you toward what you want to do in the future.
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When studying abroad, I found the work ethic of the students at Berkeley so strong, and their commitment to academic and personal success made them so driven, that it completely changed my work ethic and my drive to achieve. My work with the campus magazine, my journalism classes and my blogging experience made me realize that I wanted to pursue a career in journalism, and I have been working toward this ever since.
You can take experiences from your time as an international student that can be transplanted straight onto a resume, and you could find yourself surprised at how your time at a U.S. college could affect your plans for the future.
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To ensure that your international student experience extends beyond your time abroad, use the academic variety that U.S. colleges offer their students to experiment with unusual classes.
Be resourceful in learning new skills, and never pass up an opportunity to make a new contact. Always look to gain something, even from negative experiences.
Finally, always try to treat your international student experience as a learning opportunity. If you find something unexpected that you really enjoy either in class or outside of it, pursue it! You never know where it will end up taking you.
No one ever really knows what the future holds, and at this stage in your life you should still be learning a lot about the person you want to become. But college is an important time for starting to figure some of these ideas out, and if you're open to every experience you face as an international student, you could find yourself learning something about yourself and your future that you had never even considered before.
Emily Burt, from the United Kingdom, studied at the University of California—Berkeley on an exchange program. She will graduate from the University of East Anglia in 2014 with a bachelor's in American literature and creative writing.