We tend to think of college in terms of a journey. There's the higher-education path through high school, the various routes to financial aid, and the long road from your first freshman orientation to your degree. And one of the most rewarding parts of this metaphorical journey can also be an actual journey, if you take the opportunity to study abroad.
Spending a summer, a semester, or even a year of your college experience outside the United States can expand your horizons, improve your second-language skills, and foster your learning both inside and outside the classroom. It may seem dauntingly expensive, but studying abroad as a college student is incredibly valuable—and it's the cheapest chance you'll ever get to spend a significant chunk of time overseas without actually moving. Furthermore, with a little work, you can find scholarships and financial assistance to defray quite a bit of the cost.
Generally speaking, there are two major ways to move your studies outside the country. You can use a study abroad program affiliated with a college, or you can use an independent program such as IES, SIT, or AIFS. If you go or are planning to go to a college with a study abroad office, I'd recommend making them your first stop for a variety of reasons.
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First and most importantly, going through your own school means your program coordinators will already know your field of study, your transcript information, and your financials, and that will save you time. In addition, you'll know that the courses on offer are accredited and targeted toward students in your field, and you'll be able to hear firsthand from program participants. And, of course, you'll easily be able to find all of the financial aid options open to you.
My alma mater, the University of Minnesota, has a fairly robust and straightforward framework for study abroad scholarships, which lays out amounts, deadlines, and restrictions. Like most schools, the U of M offers general scholarships for study abroad assistance, as well as targeted scholarships for diversity, first-generation and financially needy students; its site also features a study abroad scholarship search to find private-sector and other options.
[More grad students now consider studying abroad.]
The only problem with going through your own college: what if it doesn't go where you want? In this case, it's time to expand your horizons. The U of M, for example, offers a number of programs open to non-University students, and there are programs such as Butler University's Institute for Study Abroad that coordinate study abroad opportunities around the world for students from all over the country. These are a great alternative, but you'll have to be especially on the ball in terms of financing; IFSA-Butler, for example, requires your college to process financial aid transfer and payments.
On the plus side, you can apply for both general and destination-specific scholarships that range from $1,000 to $5,000 for semester-long trips to places like Egypt, Australia, Costa Rica, and the British Isles. And the outside scholarships posted on the IFSA-Butler site point to some other excellent opportunities, such as the Boren Scholarships (up to $20,000 per year for lingustic/cultural immersion in underrepresented areas) and the State Department-sponsored Gilman Scholarships (up to $5,000 a year for students receiving Pell Grant assistance).
In addition to these college-managed programs, there are also quite a few independently managed study abroad organizations, and they're also worth a look. IES Abroad, AIFS Abroad, and SIT Study Abroad all coordinate overseas programs for undergraduate students in the United States, with some variations. SIT, for example, focuses all of their programs on critical global issues, so you select not only a location but also a very specific area of study; IES coordinates not only student programs but also overseas internships.
Each of these organizations has a long history and accredited/transferable credits; they also all offer some significant scholarship aid if you sign up for one of their programs. IES provides need, merit, diversity, and legacy-based scholarships, though this aid is restricted to students attending one of the 180 or so colleges in its Consortium. (If you're at a public school in the Consortium, you get an automatic $1,500 credit.) AIFS offers a number of general and program-specific scholarships and grants, including up to $1,000 for previous AIFS students returning for another program. (AIFS also partners with DiversityAbroad to offer additional diversity scholarship opportunities.) And SIT features a number of specific scholarships that you can apply for via one common application.
Finally, keep an eye on this list of scholarships from StudyAbroad.com for a frequently updated list of options, including program sponsors and scholarship aid from host areas like Germany and the U.K.
College is indeed a journey, and if your journey takes you outside the United States, make sure you explore all these options.
Matt Konrad has been with Scholarship America since 2005. He is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota and a former scholarship recipient.