Each semester, roughly 500 SF State students pack up their belongings and travel abroad to attend schools that have expectations, grading systems and class schedules unlike anything they anticipated.
The Office of International Programs at SF State offers study abroad programs at over 120 partner universities in 30 different countries. While the program is highly rated by those who have participated, the challenges that sometimes go along with studying abroad and returning home are often overlooked.
While the OIP aims to have students who study abroad stay on track toward graduation, it can be difficult to do without proper preparation.
“Students need to work with their academic advisers and plan thoroughly so they know which classes are the right classes to take,” said Coordinator of Study Abroad Services David Wick. “Many times students return from studying abroad and realize that not all of the classes they took overseas count toward their major.”
Students who have impacted majors like business or psychology tend to benefit the most from studying abroad, Wick said. Since budget cuts and fewer classes are not an issue at other universities around the world, these students often come back to SF State with up to 30 additional units.
Students from other countries who have studied abroad at SF State have been shocked by the different styles of teaching and grading. Ainslie Smith, an Australian native who studied criminal justice at SF State last spring, was especially surprised by the concept of crashing classes.
“In Australia, there’s not really any drama with missing out on classes,” said Smith. “It’s rare that a class is ever closed, but if it is you can just email the teacher and they’ll open up a spot for you. The biggest problem people have with classes in Australia is getting (a class at) the time they want.”
During their time abroad, some students experience an academic life similar to SF State. Others, however, may enter environments entirely different. To avoid any surprises, Wick suggested that students research the university they plan to attend beforehand.
“It’s a big deal to leave behind everything you know for the unknown,” said Wick. “It’s wonderful, but it’s not always easy.”
Elaina Joaquin, a communications major who is currently studying abroad in Sweden, quickly adjusted to her new school schedule.
“The biggest difference between school in Sweden and school in San Francisco is that in Sweden you take one or two classes for five weeks, and then move on to the next one,” said Joaquin. “This means that the material is taught really quickly. I wouldn’t say it is harder than SF State, but you just have to understand that the first couple of weeks you can’t slack off because there is simply not enough time in the course.”
After spending months in a different country, the adjustment of returning home can be challenging.
“Coming back home can be a really tough transition,” said Wick. “After studying abroad, students usually feel the need to talk about their experiences with everyone. Some students need to process those experiences and think about how it changed their perspective.”
Transferring units from schools overseas can also be challenging for some students. Jennifer Kim, a biology major who studied abroad in Germany for two semesters, didn’t realize that the units she took while studying abroad didn’t transfer over immediately. Because of this, she was unable to take upper division classes.
“(Studying abroad) was a great experience,” said Kim. “The main problem was that I didn’t realize how hard it is to study abroad being a science major. How they arranged their classes academically was a little confusing for me so I ended up just taking all language classes while I was there. I’m still glad I went, but I’m pretty much in the same position academically as I was before I left.”
Returning to SF State after making another country home for several months isn’t always a smooth transition either, especially when they offer a wider job market than in the United States. These openings have made it difficult for some students to decide whether or not to return to SF State at all.
“I am not entirely sure if I will return to San Francisco when my study abroad program is finished,” said Alden Ackerman, a climatology major currently studying abroad in Amsterdam. “I have a potential job opportunity here in the Netherlands in a smaller city named Delft. I also am applying to Ph.D. positions across the U.S., so I don’t really know where I will end up. My biggest concern is that I will be happy to come back. At this point—only a month in—I don’t ever want to leave. Amsterdam is such a livable city.”