Social Life: Direct-enrollment vs. a Study Abroad Program

So you’re an American student debating between directly enrolling into a university or joining a study abroad program, one of the pros of the study abroad program being that you’re guaranteed some friends—in addition to all the support provided by the programs, etc.

Kinda sounds like greek life, am I right?

The main reason any program was on my list for quite a while was because I didn’t know if I was going to have the social life that I wanted without a little guidance. From what I see on Facebook, I’m used to people studying abroad and immediately finding their social niche; by the second or third day, they’re going bar-hopping with their new BFFs and their friend count on Facebook has grown by 20 people.

But I rarely saw them branch out afterwards and make other friends.

Ultimately, I chose to enroll directly into a university (or a program of the university), completely unaffiliated with any US program or exchange, such as CEA, AIFS, you get the gist.

My thoughts on doing so was because I wanted a more organic experience. One with less hand holding and spoon feeding. One with more exposure with the locals. One where I was going to be forced to use my French.

the girl on the left doesn't speak English, so when we hang out, we speak (struggle) in French!
the girl on the left doesn’t speak English, so when we hang out, we speak (struggle) in French!

I chose to do so because I knew that if given the opportunity to switch and cling onto anything American, I would. My friends who have gone through American-based programs, in which you experience a study abroad with a group of American students going through the same exact thing, all admitted that, although they loved it, they wished they had gotten more cultural exposure.

It would have been too easy and too confining to befriend those that were in my program. For example, while I was out exploring Grenoble, I saw multiple exchange programs who were being led on a tour around the city sticking out like sore thumbs.

on our own tour. which led to hitchhiking, yes.
sticking out our sore thumbs ;) on our own tour in the mountainside.

At the time, seeing them gave me an unreasonable desire to just pop in an introduce myself. “Hi! I’m Michelle. Mind if I join your tour?” And then things from there would be fine. They would’ve been my friends, I wouldn’t have all this alone time to write all these freakin’ articles that I’m sure you’re getting tired of.

Had I studied abroad through a program, however… I wouldn’t have been able to talk to that friendly man at the bank. I wouldn’t have been riding back and forth on a tram, figuring out transportation and ticket-buying all by myself. I wouldn’t have been standing in line for an hour with locals trying to sign up for this cell service program. And I wouldn’t have realized that a) my French is actually pretty OK on the comprehension front and b) I am able to navigate a different country by myself. I am able to step up and attempt poor conversation (as long as the other person is patient enough.) Even though none of these led to any social opportunity whatsoever, they were still valuable experiences on a sharp learning curve.

And, because of the down time I had, when I was able to meet people at the testing center for level placement, I was able to show them around… like I was a local!

real locals
real locals

I knew that if I chose to do a program, I would always wonder how I would’ve fared by myself. In a dorm hall with possibly only one other English speaker on the floor.

And, in the weeks that come, I wouldn’t have been able to see how I do independently and socially. How courageous I can be when putting myself out there. How cowardly I can be. It’s two weeks in and so far, my friends and I have hitchhiked through the mountains in order to see a museum, planned to hike the mountains on cable bridges, and have met dozens of other international students.

After seeing the people who arrived at the testing center (there were so many!) and being a little back at ease with who I am, I’m more and more confident in my choice to have chosen to enroll directly. 

We all arrived at the same place. We all took the same placement tests. The only difference was my freedom to choose who I interact with. I mean, the people in programs can too, but after the pre-arrival excursions and bonding with the people in the program, it’s hard to muster up any desire or motivation to branch out when you already have inside jokes with a group.

And… the majority of people who came through a program (only people) were Americans.

I stumbled across this pretty awesome out-of-my-league travel blog yesterday during the long night where real jet lag finally caught up to me that wrote,

Then, the most confusing feeling of all – guilt. As if I’m here under false pretenses. In some pseudo-puritanical sense, I feel like I haven’t earned this. I’ve skipped straight to dessert without eating my greens. I’ve cheated. This is of course ludicrous. Should I have tried to cross the Atlantic in a canoe, perhaps, or maybe on a pedalo? Should I swim it with Ben Fogle? It’s absurd – but the feeling lingers, and I think I know the root of it. If I fly somewhere, I’ve missed all the fun of getting there. I’ve cheated myself out of that adventure. However impractical the alternatives, planes are just too fast for my sense of what constitutes “travel.” It seems I’m one of those Slow Movement people, which must explain why I’m so unfit these days.


Although I’m not talking about the act of flying from one destination to another, I feel like this can apply to almost anything. If everything about my experience was rainbows and sunshines, I wouldn’t feel right about it. If I didn’t have minor and major mishaps, “learning experiences that bring about great shame in the moment,” I would feel as if I didn’t earn it. And for me, earning it means how far out of my comfort zone I’m willing to push myself. If I never stepped out of the comfort zone, the overall value in the experience will have diminished.

I’m not going to say that it didn’t feel good to be able to spontaneously start talking to someone and connect immediately. For the first hour, I ran gleefully around the room, jumping in on random conversations just because I missed the interaction. It didn’t matter if they were already in their little cliques, if they spoke Mandarin (which, thankfully, I also speak), or if they had ketchup running down their nose.

I didn’t use this time as an opportunity to pick up a ton of new friends, but I did use this opportunity to realize that there are many sources where friends can come from. If something doesn’t work out in one source, it’s nice to know that there are others. And that comforts me, strangely.

As long as you can survive a week or maybe two possibly alone to find your footing, I suggest you directly enroll. What’s one or two weeks of solidarity in exchange for access to multiple access to different groups of people? 

Through my years at Michigan, I’ve already learned and honed the skill to make American friends, but so far I have not attempted to make friends in a different, non-native language. Although I might be singing a different tune a few months from now, I look forward to see what will happen. And I look forward to making things happen.

made it!
made it!

Here’s to an exciting start.

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  • Melanie Fontaine

    You mention some really interesting points here! :) I’ve come to Norway as part of the Erasmus Scheme which is a Study Abroad program of the European Union and basically the classic way of Europeans studying in other European countries. Direct enrollment isn’t really a thing. I wouldn’t even have been able to study where I study now if I hadn’t gone through Erasmus and on top of that we actually get financial support (apart from tuition fees which don’t exist in Norway anyway), which is obviously nothing to complain about. :)

    But even though I have gone with a study abroad program, I don’t really live the typical experience. You know, partying all night. ;) Part of that is because I’m in Norway and people don’t really seem to do this anyway because alcohol/going out is so expensive, but on the other hand is because I haven’t sought this out. I feel that I’m just trying to live my life like I would live it at home as well. That includes going out and hanging out with friends, but at the same time it also means caring about academics and just doing regular stuff. I feel like many people treat their study abroad semester as one huge party or one long vacation, but I don’t think that this will give one a true understanding of one’s host country. Anyway, I’m getting off-topic! ;)

    I think it’s admirable that you went and directly enrolled yourself into a French university! :) It may be harder at times, but the more you challenge yourself, the more you will be able to grow and I think that’s one of the greatest things that one can take home from a study abroad semester (besides great travel memories ;) ): Personal Growth! :)


    • Michelle

      Thanks for such an awesome thought-out comment! Firstly, I’m SO JEALOUS of people who are able to participate in Erasmus. It’s such a wonderful program between countries of the EU and I wish I could do something like that… still trying to find a way into it, no worries. I’ve met a lot of people through Erasmus and I’m moaning over our education system back in the states.

      I agree with many things that you have said—it definitely depends on a person and how he/she usually acts even when back at their home university. I do know many people who treat it as a full-out party, which annoys me too. But I believe in finding a balance. Back in the states, going out was a big part of my experience, so I chose to do the same things here ;)

      But a lot of the learning experiences that I’ve had so far were in small moments, while living like a local. These parts I will treasure a lot and, when looking back on things, I’ll be proud of how much I’ve learned in these moments most!

  • Aryn

    Completely agree! My program was essentially a direct enrollment in that there were hardly any other Americans there and there was no “hand holding”. I had to figure everything out on my own and make my own friends and even though it was hard at first (and very lonely) I came to appreciate it later. I learned French language and culture from natives and found a confidence in myself that I didn’t have before. Plus, I have friends all over Europe now!

    • Michelle

      It definitely makes me appreciate everything more! It’s more of a local experience instead of an isolated American bubble in a different country. And, if you really wanted to make American friends, they’re easy to seek out.

  • Arman @ thebigmansworld

    Chiming in, but yes, me too. I didn’t do the typical route and I’m so grateful- I felt my experience was so much more beneficial and now I have friends all over the world- embrace it!