Lots of students from many different backgrounds start considering a semester abroad from the minute they arrive on campus. The opportunities are nearly endless, and students return home from their international study with exciting stories, a global perspective, and memories to last a lifetime.
In some cases, however, students decide to leave their study abroad program early. This is an incredibly difficult decision, and one that students should make after having thought about a few key factors.
Why do students decide to leave study abroad early?
Unfortunately, in many instances, students are forced to leave study abroad because of situations beyond their control. Some of these — sickness, injury, or dealing with an unexpected incident — may happen to the student herself while she’s in a different country. Others may have to do with a student’s family or friends: the illness or death of someone close to her, or unexpected financial hardships.
In other cases, a student may be truly unhappy with her experience abroad and have difficulty adjusting to life in another country. If this is the case for you, it can be challenging to evaluate your feelings. Will this unhappiness pass, or is going home the only solution?
Gauging Your Homesickness
Before cutting your experience short, you should try to understand where your feelings are coming from, and whether there is anything you can do to help you cope with being away from home. Start by thinking about what it is that you miss: Is it the people at home? Is it a certain type of food? Is it knowing the language everyone around you speaks?
If you can pinpoint what is making you ache for familiarity, you may be able to find an adequate substitute in your new location. For example, if you are missing your friends and family, develop a communications plan and try to set a recurring time when you can have a conversation with them via Skype or a similar service. If you miss being around people who speak your language, try to find a community of expats — people from one’s home country who now live abroad — that you can spend time with every so often. You can search for a community of expats by using tools like Meetup, typing expats and the country you live in on Google, or asking administrators in your program.
You can also ask your program for accommodations that you think may be a better fit for you. If you are overwhelmed by your new surroundings, for example, asking for a different housing option might give you the opportunity for additional quiet time. Or, if you find that you are craving the feeling of being near family, transferring to a local homestay might be helpful.
What are the academic consequences of leaving early?
Prior to leaving a study abroad program early, students must find out what will happen if they do. If they’d planned on being away for a full semester and left before the program ended, students will earn no credits. Most schools treat this situation just as they would if a student had dropped out mid-semester at her home university. This may set a student back a semester as far as graduation requirements go, and it may add to her debt.
Students should investigate alternatives:
Students who have become seriously ill while away or who have a disability may be able to petition to take the remainder of their courses on an online platform once they have undergone medical treatment in their home country. Many countries like the U.S. and U.K. have student disability protection laws that may allow a sort of “special dispensation” to students who are unwell. You may want to consider asking your parents for help researching this option if adding medical or legal research to your plate would exacerbate any stress you’re feeling.
It is possible to take an incomplete as a grade on your transcript. If the international study program is run by professors at a student’s home university, it may be possible to obtain partial credit and complete a given course upon arrival home. The incomplete grade is meant for students experiencing special circumstances rather than homesickness, so be sure to gather medical documentation and paperwork for the university’s records prior to leaving the program.
What are financial consequences of leaving early?
In addition to the possibility of losing the money you paid to participate in the program, your financial aid package may be affected by your decision. Many types of federal aid are dependent on spending a certain number of hours at school, so withdrawing from study abroad — which is treated as the same as withdrawing from school at home — can have effects on the financial aid you receive during that semester. It may also affect your financial obligations to your college. Be sure to contact your financial aid office to learn additional information about your specific case.
To whom should I reach out as I decide?
Part of being responsible is knowing when to ask for help. There are probably many resources at your college than can help you decide whether leaving your study abroad program is the right choice. These same people may be able to help you make it happen if you’ve made up your mind.
First, speak to a professor or administrator in your program and tell her about what you are going through. She may be able to help, or, at the very least, refer you to the right person. You can also search the university’s website for the following people/services:
- Disability services
- International student advisor
- Counseling services
Many universities provide short-term counseling to students who are grappling with major decisions — many of which are academic in nature — and the sessions are almost always free. The ombudsman can help smooth out any difficulties or disputes within the university.
What are the logistics of leaving?
If you decide you do want to leave your international program, you will have to take the following steps prior to booking a flight home:
Consult with your university in the U.S. to determine the steps you’re required to take.
Speak with a local advisor to exit the international university officially.
In the case of illness or injury, gather any relevant medical information you may need. In the case of a death in the family, obtain a death certificate. This will provide a paper record that will help university administrators settle matters upon your return.
What will be the most likely outcome of leaving early?
Each university has a different policy concerning credits and reimbursement for students leaving early, and students are strongly advised to research their university’s policies before they consider a study abroad program. Most students will fall into one of two situations.
Partial Reimbursement/Partial to Full Credit
Students who return home may receive partial to full credit and some funding reimbursement. Reimbursement may depend on your reason for leaving the program. Check with your university to see what kind of refund you are entitled to.
Depending on when you decide to leave, some universities may allow you to enroll in classes back on your campus if they’re still within the drop/add period.
No Reimbursement/No Credit
Some students will lose all credits and receive no refund. They may also be responsible for paying for a new flight home (which can be expensive, depending on where you are flying from). Students can avoid these hefty fees by purchasing travel insurance through companies like AAA or purchasing a ticket that is changeable (usually $100 more than a non-changeable ticket).
What can you do with the rest of your semester?
If you aren’t allowed to go back to school until the following semester, here are some ideas for how you can spend the following months:
Take classes at a community college.
By taking classes at a local community college, you can work on toward getting some of the credits you may have lost by leaving your program early. This will allow you to continue progressing toward your degree. Be sure to check in advance whether your university accepts credits from the school you are considering attending.
Look for online classes.
Classes online are another way to keep up with academic requirements while you are away from school. Ask your college for a list of providers from which they accept credits and look for relevant courses.
Get a job or internship.
You may also decide to spend your time away from school gaining relevant experience at a job or internship. Some colleges may count such programs toward your degree, so be sure to look into this possibility.
What do students who have left study abroad early say about their choice?
Leaving study abroad isn’t easy, but sometimes it can be the best option for a student. Kristin Krebs, a student who left her study abroad program in England early, writes about her difficult decision in the Lake Voice News. While she was ultimately happy with her choice, Lauren R. Alexander, who wrote about leaving study abroad early for StudyAbroad.com, finds herself wishing she’d given Rome more of a chance.
Ultimately, determining whether you should stay or leave is a decision that only you can make. By understanding the repercussions and the consequences, you’ll know which is the right path for you.
Looking for more advice on how to have a successful study abroad experience? Check out our study abroad page, you can ask pressing questions or read advice from our Experts.