A lot of people think about taking a year off after high school to go travel before going to post-secondary. After all, taking a year off to galumph around the world and have countless adventures sounds a heck of a lot more exciting than going back to school again, amirite?
Some people do end up taking a year off to travel and have a great time, but for those of you who have the travel bug but are going straight back to school after you graduate like I did, fear not! With study abroad and similar programs, you can live somewhere completely different and travel while gaining credits towards your program.
I ended up doing research at RWTH University in Aachen, Germany for a few months and then travelling around Europe, and this experienced counted as credit towards my engineering co-op program!
Living in Germany
It was cool being able to work in a different culture and experience the little differences that come with it. For instance, the first time I met with my boss was over a lunch beer that he treated me to! That was something I think would very rarely happen here in Canada. Working in Germany had other perks as well: it made me a little more adaptable to learning how to navigate unfamiliar environments.
Even today I mention in interviews how studying and working abroad has made me a more flexible and adaptive person—this usually wins me a few points.
During weekdays, I’d go to work in the morning and then go out to a bar or a friend’s dorm to hang out and play cards at night. Aachen isn’t a big city like Berlin so there wasn’t a lot going on all the time, but I still had good times exploring the city and hanging out with friends from the program.
Fun fact: a lot of the student dorms in my city had a bar in the basement, so if you ever felt like partying you could often just walk downstairs!
Travelling with friends vs. going solo
I spent a lot of weekends in Germany visiting nearby countries with friends from the program which was a lot of fun! It’s always awesome to be able to recount crazy stories with your friends… like the one time you guys spent five hours hiking down a rocky, icy mountain trail without adequate footwear, food, or water because the guy at the chairlift station told you that it was an easy two-hour hike down (true story). You’ll definitely make some lifelong memories when you travel with friends.
But something that a lot of people don’t consider as an option is solo travel. I spent the majority of my last month in Europe travelling around by myself because a lot of my friends were headed back home shortly after our program in Germany ended. The idea of solo travel seems a little weird or scary to a lot of people at first, but I actually think it’s something everyone should try at least once in their life.
Even though I was travelling from city to city by myself, I still often ended up hanging with a bunch of cool and unique people I met at hostels. Solo travel encourages you to take the initiative to meet new people and to dispel any social fears you might have. For me, going solo helped me become a lot less shy and more open to new experiences.
Another perk of solo travel is having total control over what you want to do – for me, this meant that when I rented a car in Iceland I could stop, eat, hike, or sleep wherever I wanted. I even decided to pick up a fellow traveler one day which is something that would’ve never happened had I been with other friends or family (sorry mom).
But how much does it cost?
Travelling can be pricier than staying at home but it also doesn’t have to be super expensive. How much a trip will cost you depends on where you go and what you do, but on average I spent around $30-35 a day. You can save a lot if you prepare your own meals (I usually just bought bread, cheese, and fruit) or if you stay at hostels. Alternatively, if you’re a little more adventurous like me, a park bench or a car might count as accommodations for a night or two (I don’t actually recommend doing this).
Some programs offer a stipend or scholarship once you’re accepted in the program. My program gave me €1500 as a lump sum (it felt more like a fat stack) of cash when I arrived, which helped pay for a good amount of living expenses while I was in Germany. Some of my friends received scholarships from our school’s study abroad office as well, so there’s definitely free money out there to encourage you to go abroad.
Protip: If you’ve never heard of a döner kebab, it’s like a donair but a thousand times more awesome. It’s cheap too – I’d pick one up for a few euros whenever I didn’t have time to cook. Definitely try one if you’re ever in Germany.
How to find study abroad programs
Although I stumbled upon my program through dumb luck, there was actually an entire office (aptly named Education Abroad) at the University of Alberta dedicated to helping students through the entire process, from finding a program to applying and funding it. They have a great list of programs on their website from Europe to Asia, South America to Australia, and everything in between. Chances are, there’s a program that fits your interests.
Another great way to find programs is to pick a country you want to go to, then start researching on Google what post-secondary institutions there offer international programs. You can usually find links to programs easily if you Google ‘institution name + international program’. Before you apply, I’d recommend talking to an academic advisor to figure out whether or not you’d receive credit at your home institution for a certain course or program.
What I got out of going abroad
Overall, I’d recommend most students to think about going abroad sometime during their program if they can. It’s a great way to learn more about yourself and another culture, and you might even be able to get credit for courses or work you do abroad. Oh, and travelling is a whole lot of fun too!
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