Study Abroad: Think Big and Think Long Term

The Keys to Academic Success

Five months into his study abroad experience in Mexico City, the author (left) looked like any other carefree Mexican literature major.

I vividly recall the moment a college counselor came to my junior high school. It’s really great to do a year of school in another country, she told us. I was immediately convinced. My Spanish teachers the last two years had been pushing the idea; and, I badly wanted to be a real-deal Spanish speaker.

Knowing in eighth grade that I would study abroad in college led me to approach my high school and college Spanish classes with great patience. I was never derailed by the odd awful teacher, nor was I discouraged by slow progress. My long-term plan to spend my junior abroad was my lodestone. Becoming fluent required simply that I start studying the language and never stop.

In my senior year of college, I studied Spanish literature with Mexican Spanish majors in Mexico City for six months. That option only required two years’ worth of Spanish language courses. That is to say, without only marginally more Spanish than the “Mexico for Gringos” program option required, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to live life as the locals live it.

Rather than make learning the local language and culture their academic focus while abroad, students possessing no significant foreign language experience – perhaps due to lack of interest, scheduling quirks, or a learning disability – are better off planning to study at a university offering courses in English. This is the case of one of my current students, a 10th-grader who lives here on the Hill and attends Washington Latin with a lot of her neighbors. She hasn’t hated her Latin and French classes. However, she’s far too excited about science to make foreign language fluency a top priority. I have advised her to take any classes that interest her in English while studying abroad, rather than scramble to acquire minimal language proficiency only to hurry back to the US three months later.

This particular student can’t stand British humor and enjoys camping. So, not only is she not limited to stereotypical and expensive destinations such as the UK or Ireland, but she’s liable to enjoy a certain level of discomfort. This makes her a good candidate to study in a country with a more challenging environment. She might choose a location in the developing world. Alternatively, she might study in a country where a foreign language is widely spoken, but that offers classes in English because of an uncommon native language, such as Denmark. She should consider countries with interesting science programs. Those with cultural aspects she finds appealing, like food or movies, should also make her list. For maximum benefit and minimum relative cost, she should plan to stay for a full academic year. This strategy allows her to find a substantive internship in the second half of the year. She’ll return to the US with international perspective, six months of professional experience, and a ton of stories.

It’s important to remember that study-abroad students all have the same amount of fun. All will tell wonderful stories. All will advise going. None of this says anything about whether they participated in the ideal program in the most suitable country at the best time for the right length of stay and for meaningful reasons.

By keeping these aspects in mind when planning (now!) to study abroad in college, middle school and high school students can gain the confidence and motivation necessary to take full advantage of their international opportunities. A carefully thought-out study abroad experience can go a long way toward determining what amazing people these students grow up to be. By thinking big and thinking long term, students can set themselves up for maximum benefits, in addition to maximum fun.

Paul Rivas is the founder of Smith Rivas Academic Coaching & Consulting. He can be contacted at

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