Here’s Why You Should Start Planning Your Study Abroad Early

Today’s blog post comes to us from University of Arkansas at Little Rock student & #APIabroad blogger Christopher Davis. He’s studying abroad with us in Valparaíso, Chile.

Gather ‘round children! Today I have a very important public service announcement for all of you who may have thought, even a tiny little bit, that research and planning for your study abroad trip isn’t important because things “should just work themselves out”. So to illustrate why you are so very wrong (My personality type is ENTP, sue me), I want to tell you how my schedule became what the director of my study abroad office considered in her experience the “most complicated course schedule issues, ever” so that you hopefully will be able to navigate this situation smoothly or better yet not at all (I’m an ENTP with a soul).

What a Google Search Could Have Told Me

Starting May 9th, the students of my university, La Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María (one of the top universities in the country that competes on an international stage with USAM of Mexico and Sao Paulo in Brazil) had started a strike in order to make secure commitments from university authorities that would make UTFSM more conducive to the success and care of students.

This strike lasted for three months until the students demands were met. When classes resumed, the complicated matter of completing the spring semester was answered in one way by shifting the dates of classes back.  Meaning, the fall semester would technically begin on September 23rd rather than in early August.

So then I almost had to reconfigure all my plans!

Having not researched any of this (or much of anything about Chile before my trip), it came as a surprise to me when I arrived on July 26th. As information came to me, I finally understood that all the classes I had been accepted into (at least the courses that weren’t in the humanities), technically had not started yet (they would on September 23rd), and that they would officially end… after my semester abroad was over. Lovely.

Slowly, it started to feel like I was getting loaded with different tasks to not only get the materials I needed as a student of UFSM, but also to negotiate how to begin my classes would actually start.

As of writing this blog, my classes have begun and I have so much more direction on how to proceed for the semester. My resident director, and the professors of UFSM have been extremely helpful and accommodating in reworking their schedules (in however they can) to help me as an exchange student.

What I did learn from the process however, and what I want to leave you with is the importance of planning and researching before a trip.

Things You Can Do to Avoid This Kind of Mess

1. Do research – right now

I cannot interject myself into some non-reality where I did research and magically know that my time would be easier.  All I can say is that I imagine that more research in advance would have made navigating this issue of scheduling a bit easier.

I cannot guarantee what information you will find in your own research or how specific you will get. But some general guiding principles I can give that I think might have made my trip better are to research backwards: from most current events to most recent.

In this regard, it may be easier to narrow down what you are searching for by reading articles on current events about the university you are going to first. Then, do more research on the area you will be staying in.  Look for “crises”, “social upset”, “social problems”, “recent achievements and successes”. Your goal is to not learn everything (per my last post you most certainly will not), but to make note of possibly concerning information that you can then ask contact points who live in your host country about for more information.  On that note, it might also be good to ask the contact points for information directly too.

From that point do the more “sweeping long history” (Encyclopedia Britannica is an excellent resource!), and make note of historical highlights.  Again, the point of this research is not to know everything about your country but to get a basis of what might raise concerns in you (historical tensions, neat places to visit, etc). You can then ask questions of people more acquainted with the culture to put those concerns in perspective.

2. Make a well thought out plan

Again, the extent to which I can speak to planning ahead benefitting me, since I hadn’t done any other research, is limited to scheduling. At my university, it is considered a best practice to get more approved than you need when looking for possible courses to take abroad (which you should be able to find in an “international international students” section on your host university’s website that lists course options).  The reason being is that in case there is some hiccup in scheduling you’ll have a back up.

Normally these issues aren’t supposed to happen or are supposed to be minor. Lemme tell you how comforting that was when my schedule issues were exactly not that: it wasn’t. 

Even if you only intend on taking two courses (as a minimum), you could easily end up selecting courses that conflict with each other, suddenly eliminating one course or the other, and so suddenly you need to have three courses (assuming the third option doesn’t have any conflicts) to have an “ok” backup plan.

My advice is to group courses by categories and have two or three extra options for each, depending on how many you need to take.  For example, I needed to take 2 upper level elective courses, I got 4 pre-approved. I needed at least one 3000 level course for Spanish, but I got 4 pre-approved.

In the one class I didn’t have backups for, my statistics course, it ended up having a conflict with one of the humanities courses. My saving grace is that I would be able to take this course entirely through tutoring–but that is a provision largely due to the strike having shifted semester dates around, and I doubt you all would be able to bank on benefiting from a student strike you didn’t know about.

So please–ask your department chairs to pre-approve multiple courses so that you can have a backups.

And I know, I know, I know, it can be scary to come with a list of 4 or more course syllabi or descriptions asking the department chair to approve them all. But do it anyway. In all honesty, the reason I didn’t get more classes approved for my Statics course is partly because of that very fear of pestering the department chair (in reality he seems really nice after having to meet with him again).  But guess what? My only option that I did get approved ended up conflicting with a course in my schedule, and I only survived by luck! With all the unknowns, don’t expect your schedule to work itself out.

3. Make plans quickly and often

This is not to be confused with making plans before hand. The prior advice of making a plans on the front end can seem very useful – if you aren’t in the situation. For those of us who have fallen into difficult straights (I’m there with you don’t worry), or, despite all the planning prior to, still fell into difficult straights (welcome, buddy!), it is important to be aware that you will have to orient yourself quickly and keep track of all the steps you need to take to resolve issues that come up.

As I adjusted to Chile, classes approached and I tried to learn my schedule, a lot of errands requirements filled up my days: attending meetings with professors; trying to go to the classes I thought were starting; finding out who could help me resolve conflicts in my schedule; sending emails to those people; and on and on. It was a lot, and it all takes time, so use whatever method (that is not just your head) to record your responsibilities and remind yourself of what you need to do and all of the systems that your university has in place.

Keep track of and review all the information that you get to at least get a sense of what the next question to ask might be.

  • Does the school have a student website for classes? Log on and experiment
  • Are there special processes that the university has to service students? learn them.
  • Are there any cards or documents that (international) students need? Ask about them, and learn how to get them, and get them
  • Read. Emails. IN. FULL.

And in all of this, ask questions. Please ask questions. For the love of graduating on time with all academic requirements satisfied (oof, I felt that a little bit too much, not gonna lie), Ask questions!  For me, I was sometimes scared to ask questions because, on the one hand, I wanted to provide myself with pressure to learn Spanish, and on the other hand, in a room full of international students who seemed to be engaged, I didn’t want to seem like the one falling behind (and annoy the professor and student body).

But I asked questions anyway.

I even got a reputation for it after the first orientation meeting! What pushed me through it is simple: Regardless of what the professors’, presenter’s, or student body’s perception of you may be, you yourself will be responsible for actually making sure you follow through with the plans laid out or the processes presented to you on how to resolve issues on campus. Even iIf you do not understand, you will be held fully responsible for whatever error as if you did understand (not necessarily by the professors tut tutting you, but simply by facing the brunt of whatever circumstances flow out of your missteps).

So take the time to ask questions when they come up. That one word you didn’t catch, I want to see your hand in the air ASKING (raise your hand now for practice…wait…do it…thereee we go).  If the language spoken isn’t your native language, ask for a clarification in your native language or whatever language you can understand better if available. 

The reality is that my experience… the aftermath of a strike… was an inherited problem and thus totally out of my control.

I wanted to share my experience with you not to rant, but to illustrate that hiccups are real and do happen. Even worse, you can’t always predict the degree of severity.  Of course, because these issues are rare, they can seem virtually impossible for your special case because you don’t know anyone to whom anything terribly complicated happened–and so you might take the need for preparation seriously. Walp. Now you do “know” someone who this happened to and I HOPE  you use this little cautionary tale as a small prod to make and stick to your plans (and alternative plans) before during and after your trip.

I’ll see you all next time!

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