Ex-peer-dia: Study Abroad vs. Solo Travel

April 17, 2016

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Like most students, you’ve probably thought about going abroad. Maybe one of your friends just did it and told you it changed their life (and their profile picture); maybe you’re taking a language and want to test out your skills; maybe you just want to try something new and get out of your comfort zone. Whatever your reason, it can be hard deciding exactly how to go about it: which program do I do? When do I go? Do I really want to be taking classes when I’d rather be traveling?

To help you answer these questions and more, two of us peer advisers are going to share our experiences (and pictures) abroad. One of us (Cristian) studied abroad in Barcelona, Spain through the “Interculturality, International Migration and the Dialogue of Civilizations Before and After 9/11” program and the other (Jennifer) solo traveled through Europe for 2 months last summer.

What are the academic benefits?

Cristian: Studying abroad can provide students with opportunities that can benefit and enrich their personal, professional and academic life. Students oftentimes use their studying abroad experience to fulfill requirements such as Breadth requirements and/or Major requirements. Personally, because I am majoring in Ethnic Studies, I was not only able to use the course as an elective for my major, but also able to fulfill my International Studies breadth requirement. On the other hand, I also know that some programs encourage students to take classes while simultaneously doing an internship as well in order to further enrich their experience abroad.

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Jennifer: Though you won't be able to fulfill any academic requirements by traveling, you will have the opportunity to learn a ton – especially if you do it solo! Not only was I exposed to different languages and cultures, but also I was able to meet people from all around the world and hear their thoughts on a variety of issues. As a political science major, it was so interesting to learn how people from different countries viewed America, education, the Greek financial crisis, the refugee crisis, and so much more. It was a great reminder of how important it is to consider other perspectives (something I do a lot as a peer adviser)!

What about costs? Any budgeting tips?

Cristian: For students who receive financial aid, I highly encourage you all to speak with the Berkeley Study Abroad office because you might qualify for some scholarship money on top of financial aid support while abroad. Moreover, there are various scholarships that support students studying abroad. For example, one of the most famous one is the Gilman Scholarship. In terms of budgeting tips and how much things cost, that is where students need to research into the places that they are interested to gain an estimate about how much things such as food, hostels, museums, public transportation, etc. cost. This way, students can create an educated budget and figure out how much money they should save before flying out. 

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Moreover, depending on where you are traveling, airplane tickets will be more/less expensive according to how popular the city/country you want, and also to look at how much it cost to fly into neighboring cities/countries. That way, you can see if it is less expensive to fly into a different place and then just travel to the desired destination via train, bus or domestic flights. One never knows, you might get lucky and get the opportunity to check out different locations while abroad. When I studied abroad, I was able to fly into Madrid, Spain, stay there a couple nights and then take a bus to Barcelona the day before my program started because it was less expensive to fly into Madrid than Barcelona. And, when the program ended, I took the bus back to Madrid and enjoyed the city for a few days before flying back to the US. Other people in my program traveled for a few more weeks across Europe after the program, while a few others traveled before the program; these are all options to keep in mind so that you can budget accordingly and research into the locations you wish to travel to. Additionally, research for things that you might be able to do for free or that are not as expensive. So, for me, I was able to go to the beach pretty much every other day; some days I took the metro and paid, and other days since I lived a little over 3 miles away from the beach, I would just run there, relax for 1-2 hours and then run/walk/metro back home. And finally, figure out if your program also includes laundry and meals because some do whereas in others you are responsible for your own food and have to pay for laundry.

Jennifer: The biggest downside of traveling: no financial aid. In my case, I was lucky enough to have my own savings and some help from parents, as well as a summer job waiting for me when I got back. When planning your trip, I recommend starting as early as possible so you can get the best deals on flights, train passes, and hostels (which, for the record, are a great way to meet people and are usually pretty nice living conditions for reasonably cheap). Additionally, knowing how much you can afford to spend will help you figure out how long you can travel for. Once abroad, I found the best way to save money was to hit up the nearest grocery store and stock up on fruit and other snacks. Some of my hostels even had kitchens, so when I’d get the chance I’d cook myself dinner (in Italy I mastered the classic “pasta alla broke”).

What are the pros?

Cristian: Oh my, honestly, they were a lot of pros, I was blessed I had such a positive and memorable experience. I was able to take a class from my favorite discipline and use it to fulfil both degree and major requirements. I explored two very popular cities and witness first-hand how people from there live their lives. Going to Barcelona was my dream since I was in middle school and siesta time was amazing. Also, I am a super big soccer fan, and Barcelona FC is my FAVORITE soccer team and on the day of our final there was a friendly game against Santos FC (from Brazil) and I was able to watch it live, it was so incredible. Another pro about doing a studying abroad program is that you will be with a group of people who are also enjoying the experience as much as you probably will. Being able to get away from this country and not only live but also appreciate the culture of a different country is, at least in my experiences, one of the best feelings ever.

Jennifer: One big pro of traveling (rather than studying abroad) is no homework. It can also be a lot more flexible than study abroad in terms of how long you go for (I really appreciated not having to miss a semester at Cal, and choosing when I could come back so I could still work in the summer). In my case, doing a solo trip also meant I had the freedom to do exactly what I wanted when I wanted, and was open to meeting new people while doing it! I made friends on train rides, in hostels, on walking tours – heck, I even made a friend while sitting on a park bench. Traveling alone also made me more self-reliant; I came back from my trip feeling like if I could survive getting lost in Venice or dropping my phone in a toilet in Prague, then I could handle anything.

What are the cons?

Cristian: Well, to continue on being honest, the biggest con about my experience was that Barcelona is a relatively expensive place to live (and slightly more during the summer). So my time there was cut shorter than what I would have wanted, but I also did not have the budget to stay there any longer. Depending on your personality, you might enjoy or dislike doing a lot of the typical tourist things; I was in the middle, partly because of my budget and partly because I do not like being in very crowded places. Besides those two things, I did not really experience much negative or undesired things.

Jennifer: Traveling in general can be really exhausting; you never really get to “settle in” anywhere. Moreover, solo traveling can be challenging. It can be scary to go to a foreign place all by yourself, with few resources or people to help you along the way. It can be even scarier when you don’t meet people, and aren’t comfortable spending a lot of time by yourself. For me, however, I found that the longer my trip went on, the less these “cons” were really an issue. I gained confidence in myself; I became comfortable being a little uncomfortable as I familiarized myself with each new city. I also became comfortable being by myself, while simultaneously better appreciating all the love and support I had back home.

Honorable con mention: you have to ask strangers to take your tourist pics for you (this guy did a good job).

Things you wished you’d known before?

Cristian: I wish I would have asked more tips and seeked more advice from people who had done the program in previous years because the more you know the better prepare one can be. I wish I had checked how the weather was going to be like and thus been more strategic and pack a little more purposeful. I wish I had known that I was going to have to pay for laundry because I would have taken more clothes that I could hand-wash and less that required me to wash them with a machine. Lastly, I wish someone would have advised me to start saving the moment I found out that I was officially going to study abroad.

Jennifer: European water is terrible, and you have to pay to use the toilet. But actually, I’d wish I’d known that every night isn’t going to be a party (or, alternatively, that every night doesn’t have to be a party). Sometimes you’re tired from literally walking 10 miles every day, or you just don’t meet people you click with. I think from following all our friends on social media while studying abroad, or just living life, we get the impression that traveling is just one big house party, but that isn’t always the case. My advice to future travellers is to make the most of each moment, and don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t always live up to expectation. And if all else fails, just instagram the bomb food you’re eating.

Favorite memory/experience

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Cristian: Ooh, this ought to be good, haha. Okay, so like I previously said, I am a HUGE soccer, Barcelona FC, fan and I was blessed with the opportunity to watch my favorite team of ALL-TIME play live vs Santos FC, even though it was just a friendly game. Regardless, it was my dream and it came true. I was not only able to watch my idol and favorite player, Leonel Messi, play and score, but fortunately for me, there was a small festival and fan activities going on since 5 hours before the game officially started. So me being the BIG fan that I am, I went to these activities as soon possible, which was, once again -lucky me, after I finished taking my final exam. All in all, that day, finishing my program and watching Barcelona FC play live was, hands-down, my favorite one. I remained in the stadium after the game was over, all the way up until security told me that it was time for me leave, which I DID NOT want to do…): lol (:

Jennifer: This is really really tough. There are so many moments that stand out because of the people I was lucky enough to meet: my friends in Prague who I cooked mac and cheese with; the amazing girls I met in Florence who I sang karaoke with; Alex, who I bonded with instantly over the lack of free flags at the Madrid Pride parade, along with many other things. But my favorite memory has to be one I had all by myself at an Italian beach, where I just floated in the water and thought how content I was in that moment; I was so proud of myself for making it there.

We hope this helps with all your abroad planning. Whatever form of trip you go on, we know it will be a rewarding one. Safe travels!

– Cristian Lambaren and Jennifer Welden, Peer Advisers