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Studying abroad experience worth the extra expense

| Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Now that she is back home in America, Bridget Kollar says she is getting homesick -- for Ireland.

Kollar, a McKeesport native who now lives in Irwin, has lived and studied in Ireland twice -- while an undergrad at Slippery Rock University in 2007, and last year as a graduate student in intercultural studies at Dublin City University. When she was an undergrad, Kollar spent four months studying at Limerick University, and took fascinating classes about Irish folklore, Irish music and dance, and more, she says. Coming back home to her regular college life was hard, Kollar says.

"I hated being back here," says Kollar, 24. "I felt confined, and I felt that I had grown so much. ... People seemed narrow minded to me. I just felt like there was this whole other world out there, and I just felt like everyone was stuck in their own little world."

Kollar loved Ireland so much that she went back there for her master's degree, and stayed with friends she met the first time.

Now that she is back, "I'm always homesick for Ireland," she says. "It's kind of weird how it works. I get itchy feet."

Every year, thousands of American college students like Kollar leave their campuses to study for a semester, or other time period, in a foreign country. Most universities have study-abroad programs, which offer a tremendous opportunity that young people should seize while they can, says Josh Irons. He is the product development manager Hoboken, N.J.-based Education Dynamics, which operates the website .

"It brings social interaction that they wouldn't get" otherwise, Irons says. "The opportunity to meet foreigners that are actually living in their own country is an incredible experience. It's the adventure of it all."

Michael Palumbo, 20, of New Kensington, says he can't wait to depart in July for Perth, Western Australia. The sophomore at Penn State-New Kensington will be studying business over four months at Murdoch University, and doing extracurricular activities like scuba diving. The price tag of the program is $14,000, and that doesn't include the airfare, but he is sure it will be worth every penny.

"It will be a great experience. I've always wanted to go to Australia," Palumbo says. "I really don't think I can do this for four months any other time in my life. ... I'm very excited."

In the 2007-08 school year, about 262,000 American students studied abroad, according to figures on, a web source for foreign language-learners. That's about a 130 percent increase over the 114,000 students in 1997-98. About 36 percent of participants go abroad their junior year. About 65 percent of study-abroad students are female, and only 6.2 percent of all participants are foreign-language majors.

Even though studying abroad has become much more common, still, too few students pursue it, Irons says. Part of that is the cost, which can be as cheap as $1,000 or as expensive as $20,000, he says.

"It's a shame that so few kids actually decide to do it or can afford it," says Irons. He studied in Milan, Italy, in 2004 while working toward a master's degree at Villanova University, near Philadelphia.

"It was the experience of my life," Irons says. "Any experience like that is a fabulous experience, because of personal growth, resume-building, and learning the language."

Programs are available all over the world, from Europe to Botswana, Australia, China, Japan and others. Programs in England, Ireland and other English-speaking countries are especially popular, Irons says, although students learning a foreign language benefit from immersing themselves in the new culture.

"There's nothing like immersing yourself in a Spanish-speaking country where you have no choice but to speak the language," Irons says.

That is what Christina Sterck of Ligonier did when she was an undergrad at Slippery Rock University in 2003. She spent the spring semester in Spain, outside of Madrid, studying Spanish, her minor, through a program at the University of Alcala. Sterck -- now 33, and a graduate student in curriculum and instruction at St. Vincent College -- lived in a hostess' house while she studied. Sterck picked up Spanish quickly, though it was hard.

"To me, you feel like you're a juvenile," Sterck says. "You feel childish, in some ways, because you can't communicate on the same level that you know you can communicate with people in your own language.

"When I was there ... I found myself not being able to write in English because it felt counterproductive and counterintuitive to me," she says.

Students don't necessarily have to study abroad through a program offered by their schools. Michelle Leibach, 19, a nursing student at Carlow University, spent a month last year's summer studying in Tanzania, as part of the "Pitt in Tanzania" program at the University of Pittsburgh. Leibach, of Regent Square, stayed at a house at a hospital compound with about a dozen students, helped take down data in the hospital's delivery ward, and did independent study. She accompanied medical professionals when they took mobile units out to poor people living in banana groves.

"I knew that I wanted to go to a Third World country," she says. "I'm not the typical student who wants to go to London or Paris or something like that. I wanted to immerse myself in a culture I knew nothing about.

"I don't think that, going into it, I understood how large of an impact it would have on me -- and the way I view myself and the world -- but it has been life-changing," says Leibach. She is a native of Allentown, Lehigh County, and hopes to go back to Tanzania next year. "It has really touched my heart."

Laura Paterra, of Canonsburg, reminisces fondly about her semester in Italy in 2005, when she was a student at Duquesne University, which has a campus on the outskirts of Rome. Paterra, 24, remembers sitting in the Roman Forum during a class on ancient Rome and how it helped shape the world. Paterra stayed in a building that also housed nuns, and attended church services there. She was in Vatican City when Pope John Paul II died, and when Pope Benedict was named the new pope.

"I was so sad when it was over," Paterra says. "I remember crying on the way there because I was nervous and didn't want to be away from home for so many months. And then, I remember crying on the way home because I don't want to leave."

Additional Information:

Been there, done that

Advice and tips from young adults who have studied abroad.

• 'Don't hold back; go and do it,' says Bridget Kollar. Get to know the people and the culture, and travel frequently when you're overseas.

'You gain so much confidence in yourself,' she says. 'The things you see will amaze you. Have no fear; it's your life, and you only live it once.'

• Christina Sterck recommends avoiding eating too often at McDonald's, TGI Friday's and other American chain restaurants abroad. Immerse yourself in the culture and food of the new country.

'You're going to be an American no matter what, but if you're going to go abroad, you've got to be flexible,' she says.

• 'I understand the feeling that sometimes it's out of your comfort zone, but you just need to push yourself that extra inch because it's worth more than anything you can imagine when you actually do it,' says Michelle Leibach. 'I find that situations where I feel the most uncomfortable turn out to be the most rewarding.'

She also recommends booking the flight as far in advance as possible, so that it is cheaper.

• Laura Paterra says, '100 million percent, do it.' Even if the program is really expensive, it is worth it, she says. Studying abroad is a life-changing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Paterra says.

Additional Information:

Before going abroad

Students considering a foreign study opportunity should ask themselves:

• Do I want to travel to one area, or many areas during my time abroad?

• Do I want to study in a large city, or a more rural area?

• What time of year do I want to go abroad• For how long do I want to go abroad?

• Does my school have any restrictions about where I can go and for how long?

• Can I afford this program and still have spending money for personal travel and souvenirs•

• Will this program affect my financial aid awards?

• Does this program offer courses that count toward my major or minor• Will my school accept credits transferred from the program?

• Will I need to purchase insurance?

• Am I ready for a program that requires an adventurous personality?

• Are there any foreign-language considerations I need to be concerned about?

• Would I prefer to live on campus in a dorm with other students, or with a local family?

• Will I be able to adjust in a country with very different cultural and culinary customs?


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