What Are the Academic Benefits of Studying Abroad?

students experience international education in England

Going to college is a transformative experience that prepares students to become mature, productive members of society. Although every college education offers these benefits, some students go above and beyond by seeking out opportunities to study abroad at a host international university. There are incredible personal, career and academic benefits of studying abroad, and all college students are strongly encouraged to consider taking advantage of these programs.

One of the reasons why studying abroad is important is its impact on your language learning abilities. After your study abroad program, you likely will find that your fluency in your second language has increased significantly.1 Other academic benefits of studying abroad include new cultural competencies, global perspectives and an insider’s look into international educational systems.

An Overview of Studying Abroad

Because of the many academic benefits of studying abroad, these programs are quite popular at universities across the country. Some colleges design and administer their own study abroad programs, while others partner with various study abroad providers. A study abroad program may last for one semester, a summer, just weeks or even an entire year.

Regardless of their administration, all study abroad programs share one thing in common: They provide a truly immersive learning experience that nurtures students’ academic, personal and professional growth. In other words, a study abroad program can change your life for the better.

During your program, you may live in university housing (such as a dormitory or student apartment) or with a host family. You’ll attend classes and complete assignments for your host university, continuing to make progress toward completing your degree. You will also have plenty of opportunities to explore your host country and enjoy one-of-a-kind experiences to create memories that will last a lifetime.

Traveling the World Offers Limitless Opportunities for Learning

Travel in itself is a great educator and studying abroad allows you to experience different cultures. Not only will you have the opportunity to explore your host city, but on days off from school, you will likely be able to explore the surrounding towns and countryside. You’ll be able to see new sights and meet new people.

To get the most out of your study abroad program, it’s helpful to thoroughly research your host city and the surrounding area ahead of time. Create a comprehensive list of historical sites, cultural amenities, activities and similar things you would like to experience while you’re there.

You can broaden your perspective by seeking opportunities outside of your field of study. For example, if you’re a science major, you might consider visiting some art museums. Similarly, if you’re someone who typically prefers indoor activities, consider making an effort to go on a hiking trip or otherwise take in the natural beauty of your host country.

The benefits of studying abroad aren’t limited to access to museums and natural attractions, however. Traveling in itself helps instill practical life skills that will serve you well throughout your life. You’ll learn valuable life lessons throughout your stay—from figuring out how to navigate a new public transportation system to learning how to make new friends from other cultures to adjusting to leaving your comfort zone.

The Academic Benefits of Studying Abroad Include a New Education System

School doesn’t look the same in every country. For example, did you know that in the UK, universities feature primarily lecture-based classes that typically require only occasional assignments throughout the semester and a final exam at the end? Or, consider that schools in Japan integrate moral education (compassion, work ethic and so on) directly into the curriculum.

The curriculum, style of education and class formats all differ from one country to the next. As a student who is studying abroad, you will be immersed in a brand new educational system. This will enhance your global perspective and cultural competencies, helping you strive toward a greater understanding and acceptance of people from other nations.

In terms of curriculum, you may learn things in your field that you might not have learned in the U.S. In addition, you’ll certainly explore topics of interest from different perspectives. For instance, have you ever wondered how the British teach the American Revolution in their schools or how Japanese textbooks explore the post-WWII reconstruction period?

Studying Abroad Offers Cultural Immersion

Another reason why studying abroad is important is because it enables you to thoroughly explore a new culture and learn about people from other parts of the world. Each time a person travels from one country to another, there are many cultural differences to become adjusted to. Culture is comprised of many factors, including the following:

  • Language
  • Religion
  • Shared history
  • Customs and traditions
  • Food
  • Recreation and sports
  • Social ambience and behaviors
  • Dress
  • Currency

From learning about another culture’s religion and customs to trying their food to using their currency, there will be plenty of new things to do and explore when you first arrive in your host country. As you progress through your study abroad program, you are likely to find that you’ve developed an enduring appreciation for your host country, its people and its culture. You’ll gain a deeper level of acceptance, and you’ll find that you genuinely understand how there is no one universal “correct” way of life—every culture is a little different.

Why is it important to develop greater cultural awareness and stronger cultural competencies? When people develop a better understanding of other cultures and their people, this helps them overcome divisions and harmful stereotypes.

Why Studying Abroad Is Important for Your Language Skills

Among the academic benefits of studying abroad is the effect it will have on your language skills. Typically, students who intend on participating in a study abroad program will take some foreign language courses at their university to prepare for the experience. However, you can expect to make even more significant, rapid progress with your language skills during your study abroad experience.

Studying abroad offers the opportunity for immersive language learning. An immersive language learning experience is one in which you are completely surrounded by the language you are learning. You will practice listening, speaking, reading and writing the language all day long—from ordering breakfast in a café to communicating with your professors and fellow students to watching movies in a theater.

An immersive learning experience is the most effective way to learn a new language and to start speaking like a native. This is backed by scientific studies. In one study, a researcher evaluated the brain activity of language learners and found that those who learned the language in an immersion-like environment demonstrated brain activity similar to native speakers of that language.2

As you begin preparing to study abroad, one of the factors to consider is where you will obtain lodging during your program. You may have the option to be lodged in the host university dormitories or you may be placed with a host family. Either option would allow you to connect with native speakers on a daily basis, which builds on your immersive language experience.

You’ll also have opportunities to practice your language skills in the classroom, while socializing on campus and while exploring your host city. Notice that all of these scenarios involve using language in a practical way—a key differentiator between classroom instruction and immersive learning. It is this focus on practical, meaningful use of the language (compared to rote memorization) that reinforces learning in the brain and allows you to significantly advance your language skills.

Why Advanced Language Skills Are Important for Cognitive Processes

Exploring a new culture, visiting museums, learning about other educational systems and acquiring advanced foreign language skills are just a few of the academic benefits of studying abroad. There is also the potential for studying abroad to improve your overall cognitive skills, processes and neuroplasticity. How? Quite simply, becoming bilingual improves your brain’s capabilities.

Decades ago, it was thought that raising children to be bilingual would only confuse them, resulting in poor academic performance and even developmental delays. Fortunately, scientists now know that nothing could be further from the truth. Quite the contrary—bilingualism is a pathway toward greater cognitive possibilities.

Scientists now know the brain has neuroplasticity—a remarkable ability to forge new neural connections that allow for enhanced learning and memory retention. In other words, learning a new language is a challenge that stimulates the brain and forces it to acquire new capabilities. This boost in cognitive capabilities and processing also lends itself to enhanced learning abilities in every other academic subject.

According to the National Education Association (NEA), which conducted an in-depth review of the scientific findings on bilingualism, students enjoy the following cognitive benefits when they become adept with a foreign language:1

  • Students display better school performance across all subject areas (including “significantly higher” scores in mathematics and language arts)
  • Students gain a greater understanding of the vocabulary and sentence structure of their native English
  • Foreign language learners consistently perform better on standardized tests than monolingual students
  • Students demonstrate excellent problem-solving skills
  • Bilingual students display superior verbal and spatial abilities
  • Foreign language students demonstrate better listening skills and superior memory retention
  • Students learning a second language have greater cognitive flexibility and higher-order thinking skills

That list of cognitive benefits doesn’t even include the greater cultural understanding, global perspective or personal sense of achievement that foreign language learners experience as they achieve fluency. For many college students, the prospect of scoring higher on college exams and enhancing their career qualifications is sufficient to justify planning a study abroad experience in order to enjoy immersive language learning.

How to Prepare to Study Abroad

Students who are thinking about studying abroad have many important decisions to make. One of these is deciding which host country, city and university to choose. This is a decision that you should make in consultation with your academic advisor and the study abroad program staff. It’s generally best to choose a host country and university that will contribute to your field of study. For example, if you’re a Spanish major, you will want to study in a Spanish-speaking country. If you’re a history major and you love learning about the Roman Empire, then you should consider studying abroad in Italy.

Next, consider when you should depart. There are exceptions, but most students study abroad during their junior year of college. This is often ideal because you’ll have time to take language courses and prepare for your experience, but you’ll also have one more year of college left when you return to ensure you complete your degree requirements.

As you make your preparations, be sure to consider the following:

  • Education: Will the host university’s courses and credits transfer to your degree program at your school? Will you still be on track toward your graduation date?
  • Insurance: Will your healthcare coverage extends to your host country? Will you need travel insurance?
  • Costs: What are the fees associated with your study abroad experience?
  • Medical: Will you need additional vaccinations to enter your host country? Visit a travel doctor for guidance.
  • Legal: You will need to apply for a passport and, if necessary, a visa as soon as possible. It can take up to a year to complete this process, in some cases.
  • Financial: You’ll need to notify your bank/credit card provider that you’ll be abroad. You’ll also need an online account that you can access overseas, and you’ll need to navigate the currency exchange.
  • Communication: International cellphone plans can be quite expensive. A more fiscally prudent option is to get a local SIM card upon your arrival.
  • Research: Do lots of research on your host country and city well in advance. Learn about the local customs, geography, government, food and so on. You should also learn about regional etiquette to avoid inadvertently offending your host family, classmates and other locals.
  • Transportation: Be sure to check on whether public transportation is available in your host city.

As you can see, there is quite a lot that goes into preparing for a study abroad experience. The sooner you begin your preparations, the better. You can rely on the study abroad program staff and your academic advisor for guidance as you plan your overseas excursion.

At Grand Canyon University, we design the curriculum for our degree programs to encourage students to explore global perspectives and acquire cultural competencies. Students have the opportunity to enjoy cultural and linguistic immersion via our study abroad program. We offer options that last a summer, semester or full academic year with one of our approved host universities. In addition, students may consider participating in an international internship (via The Intern Group) or a global mission trip.

If you aren’t yet a student at our Christian learning community, you can learn more about joining GCU by clicking on Request Info at the top of your screen.

Retrieved from:

1 National Education Association, NEA Research, the Benefits of Second Language Study in August 2021.

2 Pursuit, The Journal of Undergraduate Research at The University of Tennessee, Effects of Language Immersion versus Classroom Exposure on Advanced French Learners: An ERP Study in August 2021.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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