Study Abroad as a Community College Student

Through short trips abroad, community college students can strengthen their resumes and broaden their outlook. 

Pretty young female tourist taking selfie in front of the fountain in Barcelona, Spain.

Even short trips abroad can be pricey, so students should start budgeting early, experts say.

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As a working community college student, Lemuel Sun didn't have the luxury to spend an entire semester abroad. 

But when he heard his school, Maryland's Howard Community College, was offering a two-week study abroad experience in China, he jumped at the chance. He wanted to see his parents' home country and brush up on his language skills.

A few months later, after he transferred to the University of Maryland—Baltimore County, he pursued a Chinese minor alongside his computer science major. "I definitely did see firsthand the importance of knowing a second language and reconnecting with my culture​," he says.

Sun is one of the thousands of community college students increasingly choosing to study oversees, according to data collected by the Institute of International Education. In 2011-2012, the most recent year for which data was available, 5,236 community college students elected to study abroad – a 13 percent increase from the year before. 

"That's a pretty significant increase and it's very exciting,​" says Daniel Obst, deputy vice president of international partnerships at the institute. For the 10 years leading up to that point, the number of community college students studying abroad remained flat, he says.

Community college students have traditionally faced hurdles that have made it harder for them to study abroad, Obst says. Many are juggling school with family and work responsibilities. The cost of studying overseas is also an issue, he says, as well as the fact that for many years, community colleges were slow to create study abroad programs. 

[Discover how to pay for community college.]

Recently, he says, community colleges have been investing more resources in creating study abroad opportunities, fueled in part by federal money that is encouraging student travel overseas. Student demand for the opportunities is also on the increase, he says.

"I think many more students are realizing that study abroad is basic training for the economy," he says. "Students need to have global skills and experience because employers are looking for them." 

Most study abroad programs at community colleges are short in duration, spanning somewhere from one to three weeks. At Howard Community College, for example, students have the chance to take quick trips to countries including​ Turkey, China, Ireland and France. Each trip has a different focus, such as history or sociology, and gives students the chance to earn credit for a course in days rather than months. 

"Our student population cannot commit to entire semesters abroad because they may have families, they may be working," says Christele Cain, director of international education at the school. "They have other commitments and also financially it’s a lot more expensive to do a semester abroad than it is to do a short-term experience." 

[Make the jump from community college to a four​-year school.]

Although the shorter trips are more affordable than entire semesters abroad, they aren't always cheap. Students can compete for generous scholarships at Howard, for example, but they still pay an average of about $2,000 per trip, Cain says. ​To ease the burden, the school offers a payment plan so students can pay for the trip over time. 

At Valencia College, ​where students pay about $1,800 to $2,200 out of pocket for study abroad trips, officials start marketing programs a year or so ahead of time so students can know what's coming and start planning.
[Learn what to ask about study abroad programs.]

"It's very difficult for students who discover the cost late in the process, because then all of a sudden they have to come up with $2,000," says Jennifer Robertson, director of study abroad and global experiences​ at the school, which changed its name from Valencia Community College in 2011 when it started offering a small number of bachelor's degrees.  

If community college students have both the money and time to study abroad, students should seize the opportunity, experts say. Traveling abroad can make students more well-rounded employees and individuals, they say.