I am leading a study-abroad program in Italy this summer. In this program, students at Cal Poly Pomona will make a one-month field trip to Florence, Rome and nearby cities, where they will complete an equivalent of 12 quarter hours of course work in the Apicius International School of Hospitality while traveling.

The courses offered are as rigorous as the ones taught in most accredited universities in the U.S., with a combination of field trip, field/lab work and lecture/discussion in a classroom setting. Consequently, the classes taken in Italy can be transferred into their degree plans.

In the past, students who had completed the program always spoke highly about their experience. They had learned so much in Italy, while they also felt they had lots of fun on the trip. Some students also called it a life-changing experience.

Interestingly, the word "fun" bothers some people. I have heard:

  • "When students are having fun in a study-abroad program, it just means they are partying every night."
  • "Most study-abroad programs only give students a chance to hang out with their friends overseas."
  • "Study-abroad programs provide no real meaningful learning experience to students."

Is that true? Why can't vigorous learning be fun at the same time?

For now, let's put aside the question of whether the course work carries the same merits as the classes being offered in the U.S. schools — those who have doubts can compare the syllabi and assessment methods before they join into a conclusion.

Rather, let's focus on the soft skills students will acquire when they travel abroad. To most people, living in a foreign country as an international student could be the most rewarding experience in their life. Here are some examples:

1. Experience a whole new world: In Italy, students will be able to see (and possibly touch) the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and other ancient wonders in person. Such experience cannot be traded with classroom lecture or discussion in the U.S. because traveling is still the only way for us to experience world treasures in person.

2. Appreciate a diverse culture: In a study-abroad program, students from around the world with different backgrounds will spend plenty of time together in classroom, in field trips and/or in the dorm. Many of them go out together. Additionally, students will gain a much better understanding of a new country by shopping in a local store and eating authentic food in a local restaurant, which can then turn into deeper appreciation of the culture.

3. Develop problem-solving skills: When students live in a place where friends and family are beyond their reach, they will become more independent. They will learn how to solve many real-life problems on their own.

4. Make lifelong friends: As students are spending a lot of time with their roommates and classmates, many become friends for the rest of their life. Some people may even find their life partners after the trip.

5. Learn a different language: Students can learn a different language or a dialect in a foreign country. A proficiency level in a foreign language is great, but a simple "hello" in a foreign language can sometimes be a good icebreaker, too.

6. Broaden a student's career opportunities: In some occasions, students will find new career opportunities in the home country or a foreign country because of the new connections they make during the trip. Or at least, students can speak intellectually in a job interview about a cultural issue or their problem-solving skills with their study-abroad experience.

"Traveling thousands of miles is better than reading thousands of books," as stated in a Chinese proverb. The life experience and the benefits gained from traveling may mean more than just a few A's on a student's transcript.

Besides the benefits listed above, what else can a student gain from their study-abroad experience? Any suggestions?