7 things you should know about group study programs

Feature photo not my own, retrieved from http://ucalgary.ca/uci/abroad/gsp/berlin

Making the decision to participate in a Group Study Program (GSP) isn’t easy. There are so many factors to bring under consideration–does this fit into my degree? Is my GPA good enough? What if I don’t get along with the other students? Or, scariest of all–how do I afford it?

These thoughts all went through my mind before submitting my application. Here are seven things that I know now (two days before departure) that I wish I’d known (or advise that you know) months ahead of time.

1. The cost (for my GSP, at least) isn’t much more expensive than a regular spring semester spent at UCalgary.

Between my flight, GSP costs, and tuition, my trip is costing $4700. This is actually $1100 cheaper than the estimated cost I received at the Berlin Summer School info session in Fall 2016. Depending on your group study program, the course requirements, the destination, and the economy, your costs may skyrocket way above the estimated cost. One GSP that focused on Food & Culture in Spain was also marginally more expensive because rather than long-stay apartments with kitchenettes, I believe they ate out quite often and stayed in hotel rooms. But don’t let finances be your ruling-out factor until you have more information!

Since I use student loans for my tuition, $1600 of that is covered (for the time being). $3100 is left over. Then, everyone in my study program received a $1000 Study Abroad Travel Grant. Now we are down to $2100. Considering my flight cost $1240 (Calgary to Berlin, then Paris to Calgary), $860 for two weeks’ accommodations in Berlin, including a month-long transit pass and overnight trip to Leipzig, this is NOT TOO SHABBY at all.

Sure, I still have to pay for food—but eating out especially in Berlin but also in many other spots in Europe is marginally cheaper than doing so in Calgary. One instructor who lives in Berlin full-time says you can find a 12-inch individual pizza plus a beer in Berlin for 10 euros (15 canadian dollars). Wowza! In fact, my biggest expense for my trip (besides the flight and tuition) is my monthly rent in Calgary while I am gone.

Save up for your flight with a part-time job or squeezing pennies to set aside some student loan money, and you are on your way!

2. Book post-GSP accommodations & transportation as soon as possible.

If you plan on continuing to travel after your GSP (which is heavily encouraged by the Study Abroad office!), make sure you plan and pay for all your accommodations at least a month ahead of time. This is something I did, but something some of my fellow classmates didn’t consider. Now, not only will they be dealing with reduced selection of accommodations (and increased prices), but the euro jumped 9 cents only a week ago, making the exchange rate markedly more expensive. You will also feel a lot more secure knowing where you’ll be sleeping every night, until the night you come home and sleep in your own bed.

As for my accommodations, I booked all Airbnbs with one “splurge” on a hostel in Paris for $50 CAD per night, my most expensive stay. My cheapest is a private-room Airbnb for $27 CAD per night.

3. Advertise the GSP you’ve chosen to your friends!

I spoke out about my GSP on Facebook and through word of mouth, and two of my existing friends signed up, including a friend I’ve known since high school! As a first-time traveller (besides a 100-student Spain trip, which had little-to-no cultural immersion), I really appreciate having a friend come along to curb my homesickness a little, and to have someone I could potentially confide my anxieties and culture shock feelings to.

It is definitely something you shouldn’t keep secret. This is especially true if the only reason you’re hiding it is because you are afraid of application competition, which brings me to my next point…

4. They aren’t as competitive as you think.

I spent a lot of time in the weeks after submitting my application, stressing about whether or not I’d be accepted into the program. Turns out, they just want to make sure  that you have done your research and can bear the financial responsibility. I know several people who had GPAs lower than 3.0 and still got into their first-choice program.

It is true some GSPs are more competitive than others due to high demand. But in fact, my GSP among others, actually struggle to be filled sometimes. The application deadline for my GSP got extended for two months because they were five applications short. So always try; nothing ventured, nothing gained!

5. Group dynamics are KEY!

One of my profs did her doctoral dissertation on GSP research. It wasn’t the language barrier, culture shock, or cost that caused the most problems. It was group dynamics. My apartment roommates for the Berlin program and I have been extra proactive about communicating and getting to know each other’s allergies & quirks before we spend two weeks in close quarters and under the demanding circumstances of a GSP. We have been keeping in touch on a Facebook group message, as well as organizing get-togethers to put faces to names and get to know personalities!

Sub-points: be open to making new friends, and be openminded in general to other lifestyles and core beliefs.

6. They are an incredibly useful way to check off multiple degree requirements.

Most GSPs don’t have departmental/faculty restrictions; mine didn’t even have pre-req requirements and two of the classes are 400-levels! At least three of the people on my group study are officially finished their degree after this program. Instead of waiting until Fall semester to take 4 months to complete three classes, they chose a GSP. Now they have the opportunity to finish three classes in two weeks, and end their degree with a travel adventure!

7. Finally, they are a lot of work—but not too much.

A lot of people have looked shellshocked when I’ve told them we do three classes in two weeks. It is not as scary as it sounds. We do a mini “block week” with one full-day of classes for each course leading up to the trip, for which I won’t deny, there was a lot of readings. But with the bulk of the theoretical readings out of the way, the rest of the course focuses on a lot of experiential learning (walking tours, museum tours) and weekly reflective journal entries. Our final projects are also not due until almost six weeks after the GSP is concluded. Totally worth it.

It is definitely worth mentioning that not all GSPs have this format. Field schools and research GSPs involve a lot of hard work and stricter academic requirements.

monica signatre

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