Setting Personal Goals for Your Study Abroad Experience

Nov 28, 2012 3:20:00 AM / by Stephanie Sadler

It’s tempting to assume that simply by studying abroad, you will return home more worldly, wise, cultured and intelligent or that your international education experience on your resume alone will impress a future employer. The reality is that, like many experiences in life, the old adage applies: you will get out of it what you put into it.

“It’s students who raise their own bar, get more involved in their program, break out of groups, do individual things, engage with local people, read newspapers, intellectualize their experience through books and their courses, and really reflect on what’s happening both internationally and with themselves that will benefit most,” advises CAPA International Education’s President/CEO John Christian.

Photo: Sculpture in Bejing's 798 Art District by renamon

So think about why you want to study abroad in the first place and set some personal goals (different from academic or professional goals) that will encourage you to engage on a deeper level with your new environment and the local people you encounter there.

Here are a handful of suggestions to kick start your imagination:

PERSONAL GOAL: LEARN A NEW LANGUAGE. If learning a new language is your personal study abroad goal, immersion is key. If you choose, for example, to learn Italian on CAPA’s Florence program, you’ll have the option to take language classes. If you want to excel, don’t wait until you arrive. Learn the basics in the weeks before you go. Make friends with bilingual locals who may agree to give you a few tips over a tea. Practice what you know whenever a situation allows. Read everything you can get your hands on – newspapers, books, brochures. Carry a mini dictionary everywhere. Keep a small notebook or your smart phone on hand to record new words. Listen to locals speaking on public transportation. Absorb as much as possible outside of your classes and you'll pick up more than you ever would simply by taking a class.

Photo: 无生无死 (Birth Denied, Death Denied) in China by Romain Barrabas

PERSONAL GOAL: DISCOVER YOUR FAMILY HERITAGE. A common reason students choose to study abroad is that a parent, grandparent or other relative was born in another country. Some students have an intense curiosity about their heritage and a desire to understand where their family originated. Irish heritage? Check out the CAPA Dublin program. If you’ve made this a personal goal, do some research before you arrive. Find out as many details as you possibly can like exactly where your family lived and the years they lived there. Decide what you would like to find out. Explore the neighborhoods, shops, places of worship, etc. nearby. Speak to locals in the same area or visit museums and ask as many questions as possible to get a taste of what live was like for your family.

PERSONAL GOAL: ENGAGE WITH LOCALS. This is a key personal goal if you wish to truly understand your destination on a deeper level. Studying abroad in Buenos Aires? Check out our top tips on how to meet locals. Attend some meet up groups using a network like Local friends will show you the secrets of the city, the hidden cafes of Florence, the quiet beaches of Sydney. But they will also talk to you about their daily lives, tell you stories of their childhood, possibly even introduce you to their families or invite you home for a meal. They may take you to see local bands, art exhibitions in small galleries or fantastic small theatre performances that don’t make it to Time Out or other major event listing guides. Most importantly, you will begin to build up a global network of connections, and you never know what sort of opportunities may develop from these in the future.

Little Britain
Photo: Londoners celebrating the Queen's Diamond Jubilee by Stephanie Sadler

PERSONAL GOAL: UNDERSTAND THE BUSINESS ENVIRONMENT OF YOUR HOST COUNTRY. If you study abroad on one of CAPA International Education’s programs, be sure to sign up for an internship. You’ll spend time working directly with local people, in a local business environment and what better way to begin to understand the business environment of your new country than that? Take advantage of your position and you’ll have the added opportunity of engaging with your colleagues on lunch breaks or while socializing after work. Think about your future career goals and ask questions. This will open up a dialogue that you can carry over to job interviews when you return home. It's a professional goal, but personal as well as you further your understanding of your host country. 

PERSONAL GOAL: BECOME MORE OPEN-MINDED. It is often said that studying abroad “makes you more open minded”, but again, becoming more open minded is another goal that you work toward achieving. Study abroad will definitely expose you to many new experiences and different ways of living. These situations will give you plenty of opportunities to cultivate your open mindedness. In your host country, the cultural norms will be different from those we’re used to in America. Observe. Try local foods you've never heard of before. Listen to local music. Be mindful of how your own behavior is being perceived by the people of your host country. Let go of comparisons to your home culture and you’ll see a change in your own perspective.

Photo: Pride demonstration in Istanbul by Sergey Povoroznyuk

PERSONAL GOAL: DEVELOP A GREATER APPRECIATION FOR DIVERSITY. This is an excellent personal goal that can be explored widely, especially if you study abroad in a large global city, like those where CAPA International Education has its program sites. Many of our students come from small American suburbs or rural areas where there simply isn't that much diversity to be found. In a global city, you’ll encounter people from around the world, hear many different languages spoken on the streets (if you choose London, for example, more than 300 languages are spoken in the city) and find yourself sitting on a subway where every person seems to have different colored skin. Try to step out of your comfort zone. Attend a pride event. Visit the mosques, churches and temples. Stop to listen to a didgeridoo player on the streets of Sydney. And then feed your growing curiosity further through personal research and exploration.

There are plenty more examples of personal goals, but personal goals are, of course, personal, so the real key is to do a bit of deep thinking before you arrive on your program and see how you can, as John Christian recommends, “raise your own bar.” And be sure to keep a journal detailing your progress so you can look back and appreciate all you've learned along the way.

What are (were) your personal goals during your study abroad program? How do you hope to accomplish them, or if you've already returned, did you?

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Topics: International Education, Predeparture & Study Abroad Preparations