Alene van der Hoop was destined to study abroad.
Raised in a family of travelers (where pretending to be tourists in their own city was a familiar pastime), she grew up “on the go,” experiencing trips, overseas sports tournaments and cottage weekends, even studying abroad during her undergrad.
“My parents instilled their passion for travel, exploration and adventure in my sisters and myself,” she says. “I knew how much there is to gain by going abroad – more than can ever be taught in a textbook.”
Alene began a graduate degree at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand in February 2014.
Having the right attitude
With a wealth of travel experience, Alene was confident she’d be comfortable away from home.
“It’s so easy to stay in touch with family and friends at home,” she says. “Of course you’ll miss them, but they are no more than a phone call away.”
Still, even the most seasoned traveler can encounter unexpected challenges. Alene’s arrival at Dunedin proved to be no exception.
“Not only was I massively jet-lagged, but I had no idea how to get to the university from the airport, I didn’t know where my flat was and didn’t know a soul,” she explains.
Making the most of your travel experience means being ready to tackle the unexpected.
“I felt determined to make this place feel like my new home,” says Alene. “It would have been easier to panic and hide in my new residence – but you have to push yourself.”
Creating your experience
In fact, Alene found that embracing the unexpected and being open to new experiences were crucial to making the most of her trip.
That process can start in the classroom, where Alene found herself engaging with material and information that challenged her perspective.
“Not only are peoples’ values, opinions and perspectives often different to those from home, they will also challenge you in different ways,” she says.
“This exposure has definitely taken off the blinders, has broadened my scope and has made me critically consider my stance on certain subjects or theories.”
Outside the classroom, that attitude enables a great range of new experiences.
“Create relationships both within the class and outside and learn from the new culture,” says Alene. “Be open to new and different perspectives.”
She made sure to do that, traveling around New Zealand and making as many connections as possible.
“I love being in a country that attracts so many international travelers because you never feel alone. There are always lots of adventures to have!”
Research guidance from an expert
Any great travel experience starts with careful planning and research.
“Schools and countries vary substantially, so take the time to ensure that you will be taken care of on a personal level, as well as an academic one,” says Alene.
1) The school
In addition to researching programs online, connecting with faculty members at promising institutions is a great strategy.
“When you are talking to faculty and potential supervisors, you can ask them questions that aren’t covered on the web that could potentially make or break your experience,” Alene explains.
“Look at the proportion of international students at the school and where they come from. This might help with your decision in terms of how important it is for you to have other North Americans around or not.”
2) The country
Along with identifying the location where you’d like to study, you’ll need to do some background research on your new place of residence.
“Everything from currency differential and cost of living to potential part-time student working visas and the appeal of the city itself need to be considered,” Alene says.
The most surprising thing she learned?
“The passport and visa application process are the easy part,” she says. “It’s time-consuming, but it’s usually fairly straightforward.”
Planning for the future
While Alene’s trip is scheduled to end in February, her experience has prompted her to think about her future in global terms.
“My experience has definitely encouraged me to look for jobs abroad after this degree,” she says. “I am not sure exactly what I want to do but definitely something in the field of International Development – probably NGO work to begin.”
Experiencing living and studying abroad can offer a two-fold benefit to your career plans. In addition to gaining perspective that helps you decide your next move, you can also develop experience that equips you for success.
“Not only have I made more international connections and built a network, but by being abroad I have also had exposure to many more international job opportunities,” Alene explains.
She’s putting that conviction to work, and will be attending a conference in Amsterdam at the end of the year while looking at possible internship opportunities – all with an eye to making a career move abroad.
“Everyone should take advantage of the opportunity to study abroad if they have the chance to,” she says. “The skills you learn are invaluable and will stay with you forever.”
“This experience will be what you make of it – so put yourself out there and make some awesome memories!”