Wanderlust. The feeling of simply having to get away. Away from everything old, gain new experiences, meet new people. A feeling that probably overwhelms everyone from time to time. But who has the time or the money to travel several times a year to more and more exotic places all over the world? Isn't it possible to somehow combine vacation and everyday life?
Thanks to globalization, we now have all the opportunities in the world to move our home for a short time to another place without interrupting our previous lives. Even if a break from it all may seem appealing at times - life abroad has many advantages: You automatically get in touch with "real" life and the local people, you get to know the language and culture of the country and you are guaranteed to see places that probably nobody would have shown you during a 2-week round trip. And the best thing about it all: You will be paid for it most of the time. Not only does it make life a lot cheaper if you live in a shared flat instead of a hotel, if you can shop in the supermarket and hopefully you will have figured out the tricks of the tourist rip-offs at some point - there are also an incredible number of support programs or grants for a stay abroad, especially for students, which you should definitely take advantage of.
I have personally tested many of them and have compiled a small list here:
Exchange semester through Erasmus
If you want to go abroad with the Erasmus program, you have a great security, concerning financial support, recognition of courses and the non-existent tuition fees. There is a regulated procedure for application deadlines, commitments and the conversion of credits. You should check this information in advance on the homepage of your university at home and if you have any questions, contact the International Office, where you also hand in your application. Erasmus supports 2-12 months of semester abroad plus a possible internship abroad of six months directly afterwards. However, the stay must not be interrupted by a semester - only one stay per study program is possible.
I was able to study two semesters abroad in Sweden, in Umea and was really enthusiastic about the organization. You select your courses online a few months before the start of the semester, have them confirmed by the professors at home and then come back with your Transcript of Records, where all grades are listed. These will be converted and entered by the examination office. Erasmus also offers financial support, which depends on the country of destination. However, 80% of the amount will be paid at once and the remaining 20% when you are back home and have submitted your experience report. The tuition fees for the desired universities will be waived in any case. You can also apply for international student loans at the same time.
Exchange semester at a partner university
If you prefer to study at a university outside Europe, or if you have already used up your two semesters of Erasmus, which both was the case for me, only other partner programs are possible. The easiest way is to find out about partner universities in your department at your home uni and apply for the exchange. The only partner uni in Mexico, that was fitting for my Bachelor's, was Universidad de las Americas in Puebla. Thanks to the partner program, tuition fees were also eliminated. Otherwise I could hardly have afforded one of the most expensive universities in Latin America. Actually, the partner program hardly differs from Erasmus. One also gets a course list, housing offers and further information about the course of the desired university. At the same time the International Office advised me about alternative scholarships. For Latin America, for example, the DAAD scholarship , which I used. Again, I was paid almost the entire amount at the beginning, so you have to divide the money well. However, you should consider carefully whether you want to go abroad for one or two semesters, as the scholarship cannot be extended afterwards. I was stupidly sure at the beginning that I only wanted to spend one semester in Mexico and was left without support in the second semester.
What annoyed me every time, was the advice that you should apply for financial support from the government for your stay abroad, even if you are not supported at your home university. Both times I received the answer from the office, that the same conditions apply to both. Up to now, nobody has been able to inform me properly about this.
Exchange semester as a free mover
The whole thing gets a bit more complicated if you have a certain university in mind, which unfortunately does not cooperate with your own. I have heard from other students that this is not so much a problem of credit recognition as of the financial situation. In almost all countries there are horrendous tuition fees that you have to pay yourself as a Free Mover. Scholarships are available for this, but they can hardly compensate for what the families of local students usually save for their whole life. Furthermore, you will find fewer reviews of the courses you are allowed to take and you will have to organize everything yourself, from finding a flat to applying to the respective university.
There are now countless agencies that arrange internships abroad. Often this is connected with high fees, so that you have to pay money for an unpaid internship at the end. There are, however, support programmes such as, once again, Erasmus which promote certain internships. Since my course of studies included a mandatory internship, it was easier to find an internship abroad (look for the notices in the International Office) and the support went more smoothly.
I wasn't paid directly for my internship at an NGO in Madrid, but I received monthly support from the DAAD foundation and in return I had to submit weekly experience reports, which in the end also earned me a certificate of intercultural competence. My experience is that you get a much better financial support for an internship than for a semester abroad, but that always depends on how many students of your university take advantage of the support this semester.
Volunteer work also often involves the problem of having to pay a lot of money to be allowed to call yourself volunteer for a few weeks in various projects with children or in nature conservation. Most of this money is collected by the agencies themselves, only a fraction goes to the project or the families you live with during your stay. There is, however, the possibility to volunteer through state-funded organisations such as weltwärts in Germany. Here you can be sure to be placed in meaningful projects, you will be prepared in seminars and the program is free. However, it is expected that you get involved in your project in advance and possibly collect donations from friends and family.
I taught English in a primary school during my volunteer work in Ghana and lived with a family in the village who were also responsible for my "food supply". Since you are understandably often placed in very poor areas and live together with the people there under the simplest conditions, this kind of stay abroad was one of the biggest cultural shocks for me, but personally also the biggest enrichment.
Work & Travel stay
For me it all started with Work & Travel in Australia in 2007 and it is still the stay abroad that has shaped me the most. There is nothing better than being thrown into cold water right after school and being on your own. During Work & Travel you will find countless opportunities to keep your head above water. I worked in the most diverse fields, from handing out flyers to months of fruit picking on different farms. In every major hostel there was a job desk to help backpackers find jobs. In Australia there is also the Harvest Hotline, where you can always get information in which part of the country there is a lot to harvest at the moment.
However, the rush of backpackers in Australia has increased enormously in recent years and the jobs are becoming increasingly competitive. Other popular countries you can travel to with a Work & Travel Visa are Canada and New Zealand. I would definitely recommend to plan this trip on your own and not with an agency. Applying for a visa is uncomplicated and you can also find your way around quickly on site, as these countries are geared towards working travelers.
Wwoofing for me is a mixture of work & travel and couchsurfing. You live with a family for free, get food there and in return you have to help out on the farm or in the garden. I think it is a bit unsuitable if you want to stay longer in one country, because you can't save money for further travels. But at least you do not spend any either.
And almost at the end: the old-fashioned au pair stay. My mom already worked as an au pair when she younger and somehow I had the feeling that nobody really does that anymore. I tried it in Australia for a few months and personally didn't have any good experiences. Of course, it always depends on the family you end up with, but I've heard the same stories from other au pairs as well: You're treated more like a maid than a family member, the host family pays for your food of course... but don't dare to ask for a different kind of breakfast cereal than the rest of the family. You'll have to pay for it yourself. You want to chill out at home in your free time? Impossible. The kids don't know that you have "free" time and still want to be kept busy. An au-pair stay is a good opportunity to arrive in a country and get to know the way of life, but for me personally it would have been too boring in the long run.
Whether you are 15 or 65, student or working - a language course always works. As an employee, you can even apply for financial support or, in some states, educational leave. In addition, the stay can be tax deductible as a further education measure. This is worthwhile, because language schools abroad are expensive. You can save money by living in a student residence instead of with a local family (great for social contacts, but bad for improving your language skills if you don't want to learn English) and by taking group lessons instead of individual lessons.
The student exchange is one of the best and first opportunities to become independent and get to know a new culture. However, you will still be very sheltered and integrated into your host family. The big advantage to later trips abroad is that you are often the only exchange student in your class or school and are therefore forced to adapt and learn the local language.
There are certainly countless other options for living abroad for longer periods of time, but these were the alternatives I am most familiar with. I will certainly publish a more detailed article on some of them.