Is Studying Abroad Worth It? Expectation vs. Reality

Study abroad is an amazing opportunity in college to not only get a change of scenery, but also a real-life application of the subjects and classes you’ve been taking while at university. It’s one thing to take a Spanish class on campus in Ohio, and another thing completely to navigate the metro system in Barcelona. Whether you opt to study abroad for one semester, or the entire academic year, 9 times out of 10 you’ll return home more curious, more excited and perhaps itching to keep exploring. Currently, 29% of American college students take the leap and study abroad. Factors like cost, location options and graduating on time deter a lot of students from even applying. Is studying abroad worth it? The short answer is yes. Why? Frankly, because knowledge doesn’t only manifest within the four walls of a classroom. The world is meant to be explored, studied, and questioned by curious though-leaders (and leaders-in-training). If you’ve already made up your mind to study abroad, or perhaps you’re currently far away from home, this article is for you. Meet Kalyn as she shares her expectations of studying abroad!

Photo by Lauren Epps

Photo by Lauren Epps

I had big plans for study abroad that may or may not have included jet-setting to different countries on the weekends, making local friends, improving my Spanish, and being wined and dined by local men. And while three out of four expectations became reality (I am, apparently, internationally single), it made me think about other subconscious expectations I had for my time abroad.

While the source of the expectations varied, they were all equally present when I pictured by life abroad. So I did what any good student does: research. I tried to figure out what was real and what wasn’t. My online forays took me to various websites (hello LMDES), blogs, and YouTube videos that helped me get a better idea of what to expect.

That being said, I still want to acknowledge that expectation almost always differs from reality. You can read all you want, but nothing can fully prepare you for the “real thing” except the real thing. As they say, there’s nothing to it but to do it. I was a lot more prepared for the experiences as a result of reading up on the countries, but there were still gaps between expectation and reality.

What’s it really like to study abroad?

Expectation: Going on crazy adventures like Lizzie McGuire

This may have made you laugh or roll your eyes, but I saw that Disney Channel movie at a pivotal point in my life and the plot stuck with me. For those of you who are less familiar, Lizzie (played by Hilary Duff) goes to Rome with her class after graduating from middle school and meets an Italian pop sensation named Paolo. Hijinks ensue and, before returning stateside, she performs at a concert alongside another famous singer who happens to look just like her (also played by Hilary Duff). Wild, I know. My expectations were stratospheric.

Adventure is definitely present, but it looks a little less flashy, a little less scripted, a little less...Disney.

Reality: Each day is an adventure in its own right.

You may not be meeting your famous doppelganger and singing on stage at a concert in the Coliseum, but study abroad provides plenty of opportunities for new experiences. You’ll meet new people and learn more about yourself than you ever thought possible. Seemingly inconsequential activities such as grocery shopping or sitting in a park or even having a conversation on the street all turn into an adventure because there are language and cultural barriers associated with them.

There are constantly new things to discover and new experiences to have. So adventure is definitely present, but it looks a little less flashy, a little less scripted, a little less...Disney.

Expectation: The “study” in “study abroad” is a formality.

I thought study abroad was code for “take an international trip under the guise of academics, but really spend your time doing everything else except schoolwork.”

I was wrong. Very wrong.

Reality: I studied quite a bit.

This is heavily--heavily--dependent on the program, but I studied abroad at the University of Salamanca and took grammar, literature, history, and cinema classes. All of those classes had papers, presentations, and tests and none of the professors were out to give anyone a free pass just for showing up. These classes were accompanied by late nights spent doing homework and the usual struggles that come with any class. And while the rigor of every program varies, I would not rule out the possibility that you will, in fact, have to study.

Expectation: Every day is fun and you’ll always be in a good mood.

When people describe study abroad, they tend to use words like “awesome” and “amazing” and “life-changing”.


They also tend to post photos on Instagram of beautiful places, historic sites, and beaches. Or photos of friends (always in stylish clothing) laughing with a glass of sangría in one hand and sunglasses in the other. They’re always having fun and always living their best lives. I expected the same.

Reality: Just like real life in any time or place, it will not always be fun nor will you always be in a good mood.

You’re human. Sometimes you may not be feeling “it”, whatever “it” may be. And “life-changing” is a blanket statement that encompasses a wide variety of nuanced experiences. That isn’t to say that your time abroad will not be both awesome and amazing, but it is important to acknowledge how nuanced and multifaceted the experience truly is. We aren’t only shaped by positive experiences. Although my study abroad experience was life-changing and I would use a plethora of other positive adjectives to describe it, there were certainly hard days.

Like the time me I got food poisoning in Granada.

And the time I got yelled at by a taxi driver over Whatsapp.

And the weekend I lost my bank card in Madrid.

None of those days were particularly enjoyable. But that’s life both at home and abroad.

Of course, there will be many days full of fun and many days in which you embrace the spirit of carpe diem. But there will also be days when you’re tired or lonely or frustrated. There will be days when you’re flubbing up verb conjugations, days when you miss your friends and family back home, days when you’re just done. These emotions happen stateside and they happen abroad. Take the time you need for yourself and don’t feel like you have to be happy all the time just being you are studying abroad.

Language is not an airborne disease—you can’t “catch” it simply by being around other people or being in another country.

Expectation: By virtue of being in a Spanish-speaking (or whichever language it is) environment, you’ll leave fluent.

Many people come back and claim to be fluent, but do not discuss the work they put in to get there. Language is not an airborne disease--you can’t “catch” it simply by being around other people or being in another country.

Reality: Fluency is something you have to work at.

And I do mean work. Simply existing in a country will not make you fluent in its national language. Unless you’re a hyperpolyglot, the dialect likely will not come easily to you at first. And that’s okay. Manage your expectations and put in the necessary work to thrive.

You also have to be disciplined. Some people who study abroad spend all their time talking to their American friends in English and leave with the same level of Spanish that they came with. Trying to become better at a language requires intentionality. That might mean encouraging your frends to try to speak in Spanish or simply limiting the amount of English you speak. Try to think to yourself in the language or watch Netflix in another language. Live with a host family, talk to locals, go to intercambios. The chances to practice and improve your Spanish are endless.

While you may not put on a concert in the Coliseum or always be in a good mood or have easy classes (or get wined and dined), I’ll say that reality often meets or exceeds expectations. Just maybe not in the way you originally expected. So, is study abroad worth it? It’s a resounding yes!


Kalyn is a Jersey-born, California-bred, soon-to-be grad with big plans for the future (that may or may not include meeting Beyoncé and Solange). Although currently stateside, she plans to find her way overseas again soon. In the meantime, you can generally find her in a library, a bookstore, or watching House Hunters International.