Light and friendly conversation emanates from the group of students gathered by the entrance to Padre Rubio Hall on Saint Louis University’s Madrid campus. Clouds of fog appear as the scent of smoke thickens the air.
American student Katlyn Martin holds her breath as she navigates her way through the crowd, racing to get to class on time. As she bounds up the stairs she looks back at the group, captures a mental picture, and smiles. While to most American students this scene of students sharing a quick smoke is something new and shocking, to Spanish students, this is a normal, everyday occurrence.
For Martin, scenes like this are the reason she decided to study abroad in the first place. “The cultural differences, both big and small, are what I enjoy most about being abroad,” Martin speaks. “Even things as small as grabbing a cigarette in between classes is so normal here, but is almost never seen in Saint Louis. Each culture is so unique, it’s really unique and remarkable.”
According to the National Association for Foreign Student Advisors, around 300,000 students each year decide to leave their home University to spend a semester studying in a foreign country. From language practice to cultural immersion, from resume boosts to the need for independence, there are countless reasons students decide to take the leap and study somewhere else across the globe.
In recent years, the number of American students who decide to take the opportunity to study abroad has noticeably increased. The Institute of International Education’s Open Doors’ report shows that the number of U.S students has more than doubled in the last 15 years.
Marta Maruri, director of student life at SLU Madrid, has seen the changes first hand. In the last few years, the University has seen an increase from about the average of 750 international students, to around 900. “More students want the chance to change their lives,” Maruri says. “It opens the doors to success, it opens students’ minds, and makes the students more human in a way. It opens them up to realities beyond the one they have been living their whole lives.”
Many students flock to foreign universities with hopes of gaining not only knowledge but also a sense of independence that being thrown into an unknown place allows. Moving a country away means not being able to ask your parents to do everything for you, and not having the comfort of normalcy in America.
For SLU Madrid permanent student, Kaylee Starks, studying abroad was not just about visiting a foreign culture. She saw a chance to step outside of her comfort zone and become more independent. “I think everyone should do something that will make them uncomfortable,” she says. “Everyone is comfortable doing what their parents and grandparents have done for years and years but it’s important to do something different. So life doesn’t get boring.”
Intending to spend only a semester studying in Spain, Starks, a Texas native, will now spend two full years studying at SLU Madrid. While a semester abroad gives a good understanding and appreciation for the culture, two years abroad allows further immersion and acclamation.
Many students also see studying abroad as an opportunity to learn aspects of other cultures that had previously not been brought to their attention.
SLU student Madison Sogge finds herself most nights staring at the clock telling her it’s 20:45 in small, blinking red numbers. Her stomach growls as she awaits dinner with hungry anticipation.
“I think you can learn a lot about a culture by looking at seemingly mundane details, like eating habits for example,” Sogge says. “They eat dinner really late here compared to in America, but they also value eating with the whole family, so that’s when everyone is home for the night. It’s all about perspective.”
Being immersed in the culture of a foreign country allows students to understand why certain people live they way they do and generates a more genuine appreciation for cultures all over the world. An increasing number of students are longing for this appreciation.
Alongside personal reasons, studying abroad has been proven to help students with employment. Studies show that students who studied abroad during their undergraduate career were twice as likely to find employment than those who did not, and their average starting salaries were 25 percent higher.
A possible attribute to these statistics is that studying abroad helps a student to develop such skills that will help them as they pursue their future career path. Among the skills students aspire to strengthen while abroad are adaptability and communication.
Many jobs require basic level skills. If someone goes to a doctor’s office, they expect that the doctor is able to effectively communicate with them and understand their concerns. The same is true for professors, it is assumed that a person who is certified to teach is able to connect with each student and assist them in learning in the most effective way. Students who study abroad are likely to obtain these skills while studying in a foreign place.
“In Poland, classes aren’t mandatory.” says Belen Novak, a Polish student studying in Madrid for the semester.
“Yeah! you just have to show up for the tests. The information you can learn by yourself if you want. Here in Madrid you have to go to classes and learn from the actual professor. I feel like I learned to adapt to learn in two completely different ways”
Adaptability is a useful skill in the workplace as many jobs are unpredictable and challenging. Abby Baric, outreach coordinator for International Education of Students Abroad, sees a particularly high value in abroad experiences when it comes to future employment.
“They can share with an employer their experience while abroad and discuss some transferable skills they obtained,” says Baric. “For instance, studying abroad can show an employer that a student is comfortable with interacting with individuals from different cultures.”
No matter what the reason is, more and more students are choosing to side with the benefits and spend a semester abroad. Whether they crave something to write on their resume, another pin on their map, or want to gain an appreciation for other cultures, students around the world are agreeing that study abroad is an important aspect not only in their education, but in their life journey.
Gabriela Gilbert, who has hosted international students for close to 20 years finds studying abroad an opportunity growing in importance in the world today, and encourages every student to take the leap.
“Studying in a foreign place lets students see how other cultures function and work,” says Gilbert. “Especially with all of the chaos in America and all around the world right now, it is important for students to gain an understanding and respect for different people and different cultures. And to have fun!”