On this subject, I will speak for the rest of my life. It will forever be the most fulfilling decision I made: studying abroad.
Since being here, I accordingly receive plenty of questions about life abroad, and what it has brought. I will be honest: There is clearly alot of fear associated with leaving home, based on hundreds of interactions with curious people about the decision. For this reason, you should know what consequences- unforeseen and planned- await you when you choose to overcome nationality and become an academic immigrant in a new society.
1. The Financial Difference
There is a high chance you are ruining your life if you are going to university with loans and still hating what you do. Continuing studies under societal pressure is a phenomena I have noticed among many American students, and will inevitably result in a generation paying debts until their 30s, totally confused and untrained to deal with the obstacles of life.
Any other country with appropriately funded education can afford the simple technical training you don’t realize you seek. (Example: I began by studying electrical engineering, theoretical physics, and ended up with a camera in my hand.) And you’re also free to totally change your mind in these systems, because they understand the difficulty of academics. Once you find something you love, you pay some 300$ for a semester.
Can we take a second to understand the long-term financial difference there? The average student debt in 2014 was almost $29,000. In Germany one can expect total yearly living costs of maybe $7,000. If your parents can’t afford to support that kind of lifestyle, you can easily find a job in the endless economies with demand for ambitious, fluent internationals. (Depending on where you decide to move, the degree might be regarded very highly all over the world.) At the end of your 3-4 year theoretical training, you have saved yourself 10 years of monthly student loan payments. It quite literally makes a lifetime of difference.
2. Academic Freedom
Other countries have respected schools that aren’t universities. This is very important to a number of people who can’t admit to themselves that they simply want a productive skill. Back home I was well aware of the prejudice toward technical students, and I can tell you it is culturally false. And I know we also have technical schools back home, but it’s not the same.
In Germany, for example, I have been exposed to this practical mindset. It’s well understood and accepted that not everyone wants or should go to university. These students are accommodated by a range of institutions from high school to university that train them to make money with a useful skill, and not revolve around theory. This means the remaining majority who decide to research at universities are prepared for a world class challenge. The chances that you make it past the first two semesters at a German university are pretty slim.
3. Learning about Life (Not a complete explanation)
Perhaps more importantly than a university education- you will learn the foundations of being a person. That almost sounds like an incomplete sentence, but its broadness cannot be overstated. After my experience here, I am seriously convinced this might be one of the most detrimental, overlooked aspects of higher education. Many Germans, while having an international culture, also don’t understand the points I am about to make.
As an immigrant you will learn to recognize the pillars of society and join in their construction. But what I am explaining cannot be left to the ambiguity of a single sentence. On arrival you will learn what it feels like to have values incompatible with your surroundings. You will not understand what people say. Equipped with only your memories, you will be responsible for adapting to this new world for your own survival. You will learn to deal with a foreign government and why exactly you are expected to work; namely to support the new society in which you find yourself. You will get yourself healthcare, a bank account, phone, utilities, living space, and food to establish your own lifestyle in which a huge language barrier will be present for at least a year. That time will be used to observe the peculiarities of human communication. And you will eventually become fluent in another form of information exchange used by hundreds of millions of people.
Without these experiences, I think it becomes more difficult to approach education with genuine, effortless love and realistic expectations.
(Note: I don’t think one necessarily needs to be a student to receive this kind of knowledge. Some of these are also consequences of traveling abroad for long periods of time.)
(Second Note, 45 Minutes Later: Do not take this summary as the complete extent of personal changes in another culture. As I continue writing, I am constantly reminded of ways Germany has stabilized me. I will consider writing something more in-depth on the topic.)
4. Acquiring a New Language
Language deserves its own number because of the sweeping changes it will bring into your life. Trying to explain the changing thought structure is like trying to show color to a blind man. Linguistics, in being the foundational mechanics of human interaction, will dictate indirectly your entire perspective of reality. You might begin articulating yourself with the analytical systems borrowed from both tongues. The definitions of the world which you trusted previously will take on new character. You will understand better how arbitrary words are- happiness, satisfaction, work, success, etc are all defined by the culture.
But it’s not just the inner world which changes- huge opportunities will open based on language. If companies don’t hire one quickly enough, the admiration and openness people have to a foreign speaker in their language is also a powerful force. As a hard working foreigner, I myself have gotten an interview to every job I applied for here in Germany, and people in the world of marketing are more cooperative and generous with me. Having been exposed to an unfamiliar language themselves, they respect the obvious effort.
This leads me to one aspect of language which I think generates the most fear: the misunderstandings. Coming to a new country for better chances in life means you will accept and live with original differences that will forever disconnect you from others. It will require tears, sleepless nights, and concentrated study to decrease the gap in understanding between you and the natives. In my own experience there have been many emotional points wishing to return to English, but the reward given by the society makes it more than worth it.
An Impossible List
The longer I write, the clearer it becomes that this topic cannot be covered in a few hours. I am going to leave this here and speak later more specifically about certain subjects. I hope this was useful information for any prospective students. But before I close completely, I will write a conclusion that broadly, yet accurately represents my message about studying abroad.
Studying or living elsewhere will be one of the best decisions you ever made, but will come at a high price. Your abilities and faculties as a human will be tested to their highest capacity. In retrospect however, it will prove to be the best possible education you could have and the only regret you can imagine would be if you had stayed home.