Conquer the fear, get in gear: study abroad


Going abroad might instill fear. But it’s overcoming that fear that leads to an experience students will never forget or regret.

Alyssa Stencavage, L&A&E Editor

Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, London, Spain. You name it. If studying abroad sounds like something that is on your bucket list, Wilkes has you covered.

Study Abroad allows students to take their learning to the next level. However, sometimes doing that instills fear.

Misconceptions& Stereotypes

In the United States, our lives tend to be guided by what is seen in the media, and that’s no less true for Study Abroad, which sometimes interrupts the decision-making process to explore the unknown.
Worry about the nature of the experience sets in based on portrayals of violence, language differences, sickness, terrorism and much more in the media.

“When you go off to college, you’re making a huge leap; you’re investing in your future, in learning about new things,” Director of International Affairs Linda Winkler said. “For many people in college or universities, it’s an exciting proposition, but from the parent’s perspective, you want the student to have these wonderful experiences, but you want them to be safe.”

The situation is a little different for frequent travelers, but Winkler points out that most people don’t travel outside the U.S.

Safety & Culture Shock

Feeling safe in a foreign place can pose a challenge for students when the idea of moving out of their comfort zone comes to mind.

Mark Stine, chair of the Communication Studies Department and an adviser of the London trip, said Americans tend to view the broader world as a big, bad place, but that students need to be assured of their safety overseas.

“Most of the places that Wilkes University runs Study Abroad trips to are just as safe – and maybe sometimes even safer than the locations right here in Northeastern Pennsylvania.”

Stine also agreed that oftentimes, the concerns of parents tend to fall back on their children, but things are never really as bad as they might seem.

Going abroad also means entering a different culture, which can be a source of apprehension depending on the area, an individual’s personality and personal travel opportunities. Stine said a country such as England would bring much less of a shock than Germany or Italy.

For as frightening as the idea of traveling somewhere one’s never been might be, Stine said much of the time students have already gotten to the point where they will be able to get past the fright.

The logistics, new territory and … flying

Associate Professor and another adviser of the London trip John Hepp said some of the fears he’s observed include separation from family, as well as terrorism, and once one has landed in the desired location, buying things can be cause for consternation. Then, of course, there’s the hassle of acquiring a passport, which like any concept, paves the way for panic.

Hepp said every year, at least one student worries about flying. But, he advises not to turn away from the opportunity. His own intuition has told him that fear is not a debilitating factor.

He also points out that although the language barrier can be scary on the surface, that block can be crossed without a problem in an area like London versus Spain or France, where the barrier is greater.

Stine and Hepp agree that although differences in studying abroad relate directly to the area of the student’s choice, sometimes the anxiety that accompanies helps more than it hurts.

“The more language barrier, the more obscure the location, the greater the level of anxiety for students,” Stine said. “However, the more challenge that’s there for the student, often the greater the benefit for that student.”

Finances & finding who you click with

“It’s not the fears that stop people from going on their own,” Hepp said. “It’s usually the combination of finance and the fears.”

Associate Director of Diversity Affairs Erica Acosta finds that the cost component comes as a challenge for many people — but one that can be dealt with. Finding the funds for studying abroad presents a tricky situation for students, especially because there are out-of-pocket costs involved.

She said the biggest hurdle for Study Abroad is how to get the word out to people that it’s really not as hard as it might seem. She points out that the student visa process is also tricky, considering the differences for each country, but that’s what makes starting early so important.

Some schools have programs built into tuition. Even though credits still have to be pre-approved at Wilkes, what’s special about the opportunities available is that programs are faculty-led, which helps facilitate the process for students. This might be part of the reason why the short-term option, which Stine likens to an “appetizer” that allows students to get their feet wet and opens doors, appears more attractive.

The experts agree that even with cost, the experiences are worthy endeavors.

Simply fitting in can also give students something to worry about, which is often dependent on one’s personality.

Then of course, there’s also the dilemma of the passport, which like any new concept, paves the way for panic.
Despite the distress that’s attached to going abroad, Acosta said it’s not problematic as long as it doesn’t halt the journey before it begins. In fact, curiosity often drives students toward their destination.

“Anything that makes us step out of our comfort zone is fearful at first,” she said. “Embrace the unknown step by step. Sometimes we want to be guaranteed of what’s going to happen, but we can’t do that. It’s OK to have doubt, as long as that is not your ‘end all, be all.’ ”

Winkler agrees that going abroad can be scary, but says it is “over and above a fantastic adventure.” “Global travel is an adventure that tests different limits. There’s no other experience that will give you the same things that study abroad does”

What about the program?
Study abroad is generally defined as taking classes for either academic purposes or personal interest, anywhere in the world, and this applies to those leaving or entering the U.S.

Ask around for a quick description of study abroad, and you’ll likely hear phrases like “fun with learning,” “an opportunity to see beyond the confines of the area in which you live,” “classroom without borders” or “forever experience.”

Acosta cites the abroad experience as one that gives students a chance to grow all around.

“It’s enriching when you learn a new culture or when you immerse yourself in the language,” she said. “It shows confidence that you can explore the world by yourself without being guided. It’s all about exploring.”

Going abroad isn’t for everyone, but some enjoy the experience so much that it leads to further travel.
Or, maybe it’s that the whole world is going global, which makes the benefits of studying abroad incredibly important. As Acosta said, why not go global with it?

Students go abroad … and abroad gives back

No matter where one chooses to go or for how long, the experience has a profound impact.

“It can really influence them in a very positive way and give them a sense of direction and a sense of understand that there’s more out there beyond the confines of wherever they happen to live,” Stine said.

When a person decides to take that leap of faith, it’s a chance to enhance every aspect of life – and that chance is now.

“If they have this goal, pursue it and make the most of this fun, personal, cultural and academic experience while you’re a student,” Paola Bianco said.

Bianco coordinates the abroad trip to Spain, which is not a study tour like the others, but students become totally immersed in the culture, life and language of the country, which they love and learn so much from.

“They know that there’s another world out there,” she said.

One of the greatest aspects of an experience is the edge it gives someone who decides to go abroad versus someone who opts not to. The aspect that cannot be emphasized enough is the global perspective a study abroad experience gives to those who welcome it.

Especially with the increase in diversity, that global aspect helps students succeed when confronted with reality.

“It broadens their understanding, helps them develop skills (to better navigate) and flexibility,” Winkler said. It’s one thing to say that you accept others, it’s another to be in a situation where you have to accept others.”

Bianco points out that adaptability is especially important in a multiethnic and multicultural world, not to mention what studying abroad does for a student’s resume.

No one can go wrong with the opportunities Study Abroad provides.Dawn DiMaria, a student who’s been on several abroad trips recommends doing it now so that there are no regrets down the line.

There’s an abundance of knowledge to be gained from immersing oneself in another culture, which also gives personal insight as well as insight into one’s own culture.

Every experience that life brings means different things to different people, but at the end of the day, all that matters is learning and growth, coming back as something Acosta labels a “change agent.

“Most people express high levels of satisfaction with deepening experiences,” Winkler said. “When they talk about what has meant the most in their lives, they talk about experiences they have had, not the things they’ve owned.”

The key to any abroad experience, as Winkler puts it, is finding a place that fits the individual.

So, follow Hepp’s words of wisdom, and “take the risk because the fear will go away.”

If the apprehension lingers, talk to someone, and know that you’re not alone. Chances are, things will be just fine.
For more information, contact Diversity Affairs at Wilkes University.