For most, the beginning of freshman year means dorm shopping, stocking up on college apparel and figuring out how to navigate campus. However, for a select few freshmen, the first day of classes takes place halfway across the world.
Schools such as St. Lawrence University, Villanova University and Marist College are beginning to integrate first-year abroad programs into their options for students embarking on their freshman year.
Although the intricacies of each program vary, students across schools and various fields of study have found value in the cultural immersion, marketable international experience and close-knit bonds that come with spending part (or all) of their freshman year abroad with their peers.
“I knew right away the Freshman Florence Experience (FFE) program was right for me. It would give me the opportunity to study in one of the most historic, beautiful cities in the world for more than just one semester,” said Jason Tyler, a 20-year-old Marist College junior who spent the entirety of his freshman year in Italy.
“It was an opportunity of a lifetime to be able to study in the country of my heritage,” he said.
For others, the incentive to study abroad early is future-focused. Alexa Bosso, a 19-year-old sophomore studying international business participated in Villanova’s Global Citizens Program in London during her freshman year. As she recounts, the chance to study and intern abroad fit nicely into her educational and professional plan.
“I chose to go abroad my freshman year because I felt that international business experience as a freshman would make me stand out to employers,” she explained. “I debated going at times, but the fact that I would be with 23 other Villanova students made missing the second half of my freshman year less scary.”
This sense of community is common in first-year abroad programs because students often depend on each other for support while balancing schoolwork and learning to live independently as they transition to a new culture. Richard Jenseth, the director of St. Lawrence’s First-Year Program (FYP) can attest to the bond he has observed between his own students.
“Part of it is how they have taught themselves to be aware of their surroundings, to be engaged and alert. It’s a lot to take in, but the other part of why they are thriving has to do with the way they look after each other. It’s too glib to simply say they have bonded, when what they have really done is create themselves as a community in which each supports the other.”
Although students may be tempted to view these programs as an extended summer vacation, there’s a reason they’re called study abroad programs — they require work. Balance and planning ahead play key roles in making the transition from high school to freshman year abroad.
“Sometimes it feels like vacation, but a lot of times, you can’t take advantage of the amazing opportunities of the city because you have too much homework that night,” explained St. Lawrence freshman Ben Brisson. “So I think balance, while not necessarily a unique challenge, is the biggest challenge of this program.
And beyond studies, spending freshman year abroad could mean making a lot of personal adjustments in behavior, habits and global outlook.
“It definitely made me grow up a lot quicker. Since I was moving to a different country that had a different culture and language, I had to make sure I could handle myself,” Tyler said.
Bosso, who studied abroad during the second semester of her freshman year, echoed this sentiment, and added that staying connected to family and friends back on campus also proved to be an obstacle.
“Some challenges were the inability to easily pick up the phone and call my parents, friends or Villanova if I had a question. I also faced a new set of challenges simply because I had to consistently go grocery shopping for the first time, had to plan trips and book plane tickets on my own and was basically completely independent for the first time, which created a new sense of responsibility I had not experienced from just living on Villanova’s campus.”
Making the decision
Making the decision to go abroad during freshman year is a personal one, and it is a decision that requires students to consider their many professional, academic and personal goals.
Brisson, an 18-year-old freshman originally from Vermont, said he spent quite a bit of time weighing the potential pros and cons of the experience before committing. Ultimately, it was too sweet of a deal to let slip away.
“The thought of going abroad was very enticing,” he explained. “That ‘unknown’ was also part of what made me decide to go, and why I like traveling in general. Being interested in journalism and global studies, it seemed like the right fit.”
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