Going Global: A College Student’s Road Map to Studying Abroad

Finding & Financing Study in the Top Destinations and Programs Worldwide

Studying abroad can provide a life-changing experience, offering a rare opportunity to learn in — and about — a different culture. American students who study abroad, whether for a week, semester, full year, or more, expose themselves to new perspectives, attitudes, and general ways of living that ultimately help them become informed global citizens, a quality that many employers want. This guide helps students navigate the wide spectrum of study abroad options available, ranging from volunteer opportunities to language immersion programs to apprenticeships, and everything in-between. It also provides helpful resources for more information on academics, housing, safety, and financial aid to help interested students begin planning their future abroad.

Popular Study Abroad Destinations

Selecting a destination for a study abroad program can be a little overwhelming, particularly for those who have never been overseas. With so many different locations, U.S. students may want to consider the most popular options among college students. According to data provided by the Institute of International Education, five top areas emerged due to a variety of reasons.


Top 5 Study Abroad Destinations

United Kingdom

39,851 (2016-2017), 12% of total U.S. students studying abroad

Why students love it: The United Kingdom offers a culture similar to America but with enough variations to be exciting and new. Some of the best universities in the world also reside on this small island, making it attractive for tens of thousands of American students each year.

Resources to kickstart your study abroad program here:

  • Study Abroad UK. This independent study abroad company is based in the United Kingdom and provides numerous complimentary services such as excursions, airport transfers, a UK cell phone, support officers, and host family profiles.
  • Studying in England. This great resource provides an overview of the UK educational system and variances between the American system. It also provides helpful details on cost of living, accommodation, medical treatment, and student life.
  • The Study Abroad Blog. Anyone who has done research on studying in the UK has probably come across the infamous Tier 4 Student Visa. This organization explains the visa process and provides helpful tips and timelines for applying.

Italy

35,366 (2016-2017), 10.6% of total U.S. students studying abroad

Why students love it: Those looking to immerse themselves in history dating back to Roman times frequently choose Italy. This location is also ideal for those interested in humanities-related topics, such as art, art history, architecture, sculpture, painting, history, religion, and Italian language.

Resources to kickstart your study abroad program here:

  • 10 Things to Look Forward to When Studying in Florence. This blog post is part of a larger series of entries about study abroad experiences. A great read to learn more about Italy and the cultural draws.
  • Babilonia Center for Italian Studies. This Sicily-based study abroad program immerses students in Italian literature, cinema, geology, history, architecture, and politics through a variety of different options for study.
  • CIMBA Italy. With a focus on global business education, this program based in Northern Italy caters to both undergraduate and graduate students through numerous study abroad options.

Spain

31,230 (2016-2017) – 9.4% of total U.S. students studying abroad

Why students love it: Spain offers cultural and historical centers such as Barcelona and Madrid alongside smaller-yet-still-charming places such as Valencia, Granada, Santiago de Compostela, and Pamplona. Universities in the country maintain favorable rankings and offer many different subject areas for study abroad.

Resources to kickstart your study abroad program here:

  • 10 Major Don’ts When Studying Abroad in Spain. Go Overseas provides a fascinating and educational look at how to make the most out of a study abroad experience in Spain.
  • Spanish Studies Abroad. Operating through the Center for Cross-Cultural Study, this program has been providing unique study abroad experiences in Spain, Argentina, Cuba, and Puerto Rico for more than 50 years.
  • Spanish Abroad. This organization offers a variety of study abroad options throughout Latin America and Spain that range from one week to numerous months. Specialized areas include medical programs, business topics, and volunteer opportunities.

France

16,462 (2016-2017)– 4.9% of total U.S. students studying abroad

Why students love it: Whether wandering the streets of Paris after an art class and day at the Louvre or taking advantage of the history-filled nooks in Lyon, Lille, or Grenoble, France has it all. The country is known as the birthplace of culture, serves as the starting point for any Westerner serious about food, and provides many great universities.

Resources to kickstart your study abroad program here:

  • 12 Helpful Tips for Studying Abroad in Paris. This educational guide provides a number of helpful ideas for making the most of a study abroad experience in Paris.
  • ISA Study Abroad Blog. ISA regularly updates this blog with posts from students currently studying abroad in Paris, giving readers an insider view of what it’s like.
  • Campus France. This service is provided by the French Embassy and seeks to promote study abroad opportunities in France to American students and institutions.

Germany

12585 (2016-2017) 3.8% of total U.S. students studying abroad

Why students love it: Aside from providing many universities of worldwide distinction, Germany offers a rich cultural experience, a thriving international student population, delicious food, and the opportunity to study many different disciplines at the highest levels.

Resources to kickstart your study abroad program here:

Studying Abroad: Subject Areas & Program Types

Wondering how to find a study abroad program that you’ll talk about and share memories of for years to come? When choosing an overseas educational program, it’s important to have a mix of work and play. While academics are the top priority, learning about and enjoying the culture and local flare of your temporary home is also important. Some of the most important decisions you’ll need to make revolve around location, duration of stay, and area of study. If cold weather isn’t your thing, Iceland probably isn’t for you. Similarly, if you aren’t studying a foreign language, it may be best to choose an English-speaking location. The following section offers an overview of popular programs and lengths of study.

Popular Study Abroad Subject Areas

Many study abroad trips are organized by theme or areas of study and allow students to concentrate their learning on topics relevant to future aspirations. Some of the most commonly offered areas of study include:

INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS & BUSINESS

This area allows students to gain language, politics, sociology, and business skills to prepare for careers in international organizations, non-profits, or public sector settings. Examples of classes may include international financial management, international marketing communicating across cultures, globalization, or international political economy.

MEDIA & COMMUNICATIONS

With a focus on the rise of social media and the surrounding culture, this focus area pulls together writing, communications, journalism, ethics, and politics to create a holistic academic experience. Class examples include communication across cultures, global politics and the media, global networking, and media, war, and peace.

PRE-MED & GLOBAL HEALTH

Students aspiring to work in a direct care medical setting benefit from these global experiences focused on public health, clinical study, and practicum experience. Students with an interest in indigenous diseases or global epidemics find particular value in this discipline. Classes may include health and community development, global healthcare policy, international human rights, and a field placement in a local clinic.

ENGINEERING & INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY

With an emphasis on the massively growing engineering and information technology global market, students immerse themselves in the latest coursework and research-based findings, with the goal of making students more competitive for international placements after graduation. Popular courses include computer science, global technology ethics, chemical engineering, international information technology, and biotechnology.

DIGITAL & CREATIVE ARTS

Students with a passion for contemporary arts and how digital media plays a role in the growth of the field often choose this theme, which draws on graphic design, visual arts, photography, drama, sound, original art, and culture studies. Course options may include stagecraft, international media arts, photography, and performance skills.

ENVIRONMENT & SUSTAINABILITY

The ever-growing body of research around global environmental study draws many students to this topic, which builds on emerging technologies, environmental conservation principles, green energy research, and climate change data to create an immersive and educational discipline. Popular coursework may include global environmental law, landscape climatology, pollution control, and international environmental engineering design.

Program Types for Study Abroad

Much like degrees, study abroad programs are not one-size-fits-all. A wide range of options exist to suit a diverse set of goals, financial backgrounds, and even comfort levels. For example, those who desire to study abroad but don’t want to be away from home too long can look into summer programs. Conversely, students studying a foreign language may elect to go for an entire academic year to truly soak up the local culture and grow closer to fluency. Regardless of one’s goals, there’s a good chance a program exists to meet his or her expectations. Some of the most common include:

  • Icon Academic Year or Semester ProgramsThese study abroad experiences are the most popular, with options available during the fall or spring, or as an entire academic year.
  • Icon Summer ProgramsTypically offered as either a full summer or a partial summer session, these programs are great options for students who want to have an overseas experience but don’t want to miss a semester at their home university. They can last anywhere from two weeks to three months.
  • Icon Intersession ProgramsSometimes also known as Maymesters or similar, these short study abroad experiences typically take place during college breaks other than summer, such as spring or fall break. Depending on the program, students can sometimes gain up to three college credits while undertaking an intensive class.
  • Icon Internship ProgramsThis is a great option for students who wish to gain professional experience in a foreign country, particularly if they hope to work for an international organization after graduating. Options range from a few weeks to an entire academic year.
  • Icon Volunteer ProgramsFor students who want to serve communities or individuals while also gaining academic credit, volunteer programs can expose them to different cultures and their needs within a structured volunteer setting. Depending on the area of service, students have many different options available to them. An example would include working within a childcare or orphanage setting in a developing country, a popular option for students working towards a social work or public policy degree.
  • Icon E-Learning ProgramsHarnessing the power of online education, students at some colleges can elect to take distance learning classes either from their own university while living abroad, or from a foreign university while still in America.
  • Icon Intensive Language ProgramsEspecially popular for students majoring in a foreign language, these immersive programs allow them to further develop and raise levels of fluency while speaking the language in a native setting. Options range from a few weeks to an academic year.
  • Icon High School ProgramsHigh school exchange programs cater to students in grades 9-12 who want to take advantage of a foreign learning experience before college. In addition to being a great way to expand a student’s worldview, it will look great on a college application.
  • Icon Undergraduate ProgramsStudents looking for a truly unique college experience or those who aspire to naturalize in a foreign country may consider completing their entire undergraduate degree overseas.
  • Icon Graduate ProgramsOverseas graduate degrees are a great option for students who have already completed their undergraduate program and wish to undertake post-baccalaureate studies abroad. Depending on the specific course, students will need to research how well the courses transfer to American workplaces; this is especially true for subjects requiring examinations, such as law or medicine.
  • Icon Teaching ProgramsUsually undertaken after completing an undergraduate degree, teaching abroad programs allow students to gain experience as an educator in a foreign country. This option is a perfect opportunity for individuals considering a career in teaching, those who wish to hone their language skills, or those who seek an exciting experience before undertaking postgraduate study or starting in a career.
  • Icon Semester at Sea ProgramsOffering a truly unique educational experience, Semester at Sea provides a multi-country study abroad program focused on academics, hands-on field experiences, and unique opportunities to engage with the global community. More than 25 disciplines are available and credits are transferable to home universities.
  • Icon Online Study Abroad ProgramsStudents are increasingly electing to complete their degrees online, but that doesn’t mean they can’t also undertake study abroad programs. While they may be juggling school, work, and personal commitments, they are eligible for the same funding as their counterparts attending at brick-and-mortar locations. Exchange programs often take place in the summer and allow students to pay the same tuition rates as an online class, leaving only travel and living expenses to be covered. These programs are an excellent option for students who wish to gain a global perspective but may have never considered study abroad as a viable option.

First Steps: Choosing a Program and Location

Studying abroad can be an exciting and exhilarating part of any college student’s experience, but there are a number of questions to consider before putting down a deposit and diving in. The list below helps students and their families think through the logistics of an overseas learning experience and ensure they make an educated decision.

  1. Decide if study abroad is right for you. Before deciding where and when to study abroad, students should first make sure is right for them. Living abroad can be a great experience, but it can also be stressful and require a lot of patience and planning. In other words, it isn’t for everyone. Additionally, it is also more expensive than normal college costs. International Studies Abroad provides a list of costs for programs of varied length and location to give students a general idea. Students can also talk with the global education/study abroad office on their campus to get resources and learn about school-sponsored programs.
  2. Fully lay out your goals. Learners study abroad for myriad reasons: some may want to increase their language fluency, while others want to learn more about the history and culture of another country. Still others want to try and leverage their experience into specialized career opportunities. Students should create a list of their goals before traveling to ensure they maximize the experience.
  3. Consider language barriers. While many students undertake overseas educations specifically to hone their language skills, other simply want to learn outside their home country. If you fall into the latter category, it might be worth considering whether to study in an English or non-English speaking country. While your classes may be conducted in English, you may struggle to speak with locals.
  4. Think about setting. With thousands of international universities offering study abroad opportunities, options for learners are endless. Because of this, students should think about the type of place they want to live. Some may prefer the hustle and bustle of a large city, while others may want a more rural setting. Students should think about this in conjunction with their overall goals: if they want to build business skills, a larger city might be better, but if they’re interested in a topic like agriculture or art, a rural setting might best serve their needs.
  5. Decide if you want more structure or independence. When looking at study abroad models, degree seekers typically choose from two options: specialty or partnership. Specialty includes programs arranged by your university with only students and professors from your institution. Partnership experiences, conversely, work as exchange programs whereby a student attends an actual international institution. Learners looking for a more country-specific experience often opt for the latter, while those seeking more guidance opt for the former.
  6. Make sure study abroad credits transfer. In some cases, hours gained abroad may not translate to credits at a student’s home university. Learners should be in touch with both the sponsoring organization and their institution if they are using an outside agency to ensure their experience will count academically. The global education/study abroad administrator can also speak with the sponsoring organization to determine if credits will transfer.
  7. Decide the best time. Most students choose to study abroad after one or two years of education at their home university as a way of getting general education courses out of their way and being sure of their intended major/study abroad focus area. Students should meet with their academic advisor to discuss the best time of year to go abroad and how long their trip can be without compromising required coursework for graduation.
  8. Figure out how long to go abroad. Study abroad trips can span from two weeks to an entire degree program. Depending on their academic and personal goals, students should decide where they want to be on this spectrum and seek out programs designed to meet those needs.

Top 10 Search Tools for Finding the Right Program

For students just starting to research potential study abroad trips, a number of organizations provide search tools that allow users to sift through programs by country, length, area of study, or cost. Take a look at some of the best online tools:

American Institute for Foreign Study

Interested students can search AIFS’ more than 50 programs spread out across the globe.

CEA Global Education

With programs available in more than a dozen countries, prospective students can search through various subject areas and trip lengths to find an opportunity matched to their aspirations. The organization also provides information on financing, health, and safety.

Go Abroad

GA both provides a powerful search engine and regular articles about innovative and popular study abroad options throughout the world.

Go Overseas

This organization allows students to post reviews of different programs, including opportunities to study, teach, volunteer, or intern abroad. It also provides reviews of TEFL courses, GAP year programs, high school trips, and language schools.

Institute for the International Education of Students

IIES offers a search tool for its programs offered throughout Asia, Australia, Europe, New Zealand, and South America.

Institute of International Education

IIE’s Passport allows students to search through a variety of options and specialize their results to region, term length, format, and subject.

Study Abroad 101

Fashioned after popular user-review sites such as Yelp or TripAdvisor, SA101 allows students to post searchable reviews of different programs and countries.

Study Abroad Links

This organization provides links to information about every country with study abroad programs and lists available options.

Study Abroad

In addition to a search function, students can use this website to learn about various programs and countries, read student accounts of their trips, search scholarships, and find a number of helpful resources.

Wandering Educators

For students seeking a library of information about travel experiences, WE provides a wealth of resources and guides to help make the decision process easier.

Finding Student Housing While Abroad

Being surrounded by the right atmosphere can be almost as important as the overall study abroad experience. We’ve all heard horror stories about bad roommates or less-than-ideal housing, and these issues can be even more exasperating when living in a foreign country. Students who enjoy being constantly surrounded by their peers will likely do well in dormitory-style housing offered by host universities, while those who enjoy their quiet time may want to seek private accommodation. The most common types of housing are discussed below for an idea of what’s available. Students should check with their study abroad organization or institution to ensure all of these options are offered in their chosen location.

Student Housing/Dormitory

Often similar to university housing in the United States, overseas dormitories provide students the opportunity to mingle and live among other learners, both American and international. These options work for both short- and long-term study and allow students to focus fully on their overseas experience.

Pros

  • This option is great for those who wish to have a traditional experience with communal bathrooms, cafeteria meals, and group laundry sessions.
  • Undergraduates are particularly drawn to this option, while students who have already had this experience may seek out more independent accommodations.

Cons

  • University-owned housing may have specific rules concerning curfews, visitors, alcohol, or members of the opposite sex.

Questions to ask yourself before before picking this option:

  • Do I potentially want to share a room, bathroom, and other facilities with students?
  • Do I value independence or community more?
  • Do I have the budget for this option?

HomeStay

Students looking for a truly immersive experience will be drawn to the homestay option, where host families take in a student and allow them to live in their home during their overseas education. This option is mostly made available to students undertaking short-term programs, while those in more long-term programs may live with numerous host families throughout their time abroad. Host families can come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from a single-parent household to a retired couple.

Pros

  • Those who truly wish to experience local culture often gravitate to this option, as many host families provide meals and allow students to take part in family activities.
  • For students studying a foreign language, this can be a wonderful option for increasing levels of fluency.

Cons

  • Students electing to live in a home-stay should be comfortable spending time with their families and willing to abide by the rules of the house.

Questions to ask yourself before before picking this option:

  • Will I feel comfortable without truly having my own space?
  • How important is it to feel like I see other students outside of class?
  • Do I want to learn the language of my host country?

Apartment

Apartments are frequently a popular choice for non-traditional or graduate students seeking a level of independence. They often appeal to those who plan to study at least for a semester, but often for a year or longer. This setting can make individuals feel like a local and allow them to have resident roommates in some cases.

Pros

  • Students are free to come and go as they please, have guests, cook their own meals, and not worry about rules.
  • Apartments are typically cheaper than school-sponsored housing

Cons

  • It comes with the most responsibility, as students will need to sort out their bills, make their own meals, and potentially find a roommate to share costs.

Questions to ask yourself before before picking this option:

  • Do I want to take on the extra responsibility of an apartment or focus my efforts on study, friends, and a new city?
  • Do I want to live with locals or other students?
  • Will I miss out immersive language studies?

The Cost of Studying Abroad

When it comes to calculating cost, study abroad programs are somewhat similar to college at home – in addition to tuition and fees, students also need to think about living expenses such as housing, transportation, food, and social activities.

Top 8 Ways to Study Abroad for Cheap

Studying abroad doesn’t have to break the bank. With thoughtful planning and research, students can reduce the associated costs to make it more affordable. Some of our top tips include:

  • Find funding. In addition to hundreds of independent and institution-based scholarships and grants, the U.S. government also offers a variety of funding options, including the Fulbright Scholarship, Gilman Scholarship, and Boren Awards for International Study. Students qualifying for federal financial aid may also be eligible for further funding. Study abroad expert Emily Capdeville also reminds students to check the rules of their federal financial aid. “You may not realize it, but if you have a Pell Grant, you’re eligible for a whole bunch of additional assistance.”
  • Follow the unbeaten path. While study abroad programs in Western Europe may be the most popular, they are also the most expensive. Students seeking an international experience without breaking the bank may want to consider Asian or South American countries, which tend to be cheaper. Capdeville echoes this sentiment, stating, “Students should consider locations where the U.S. dollar goes a long way.” She continues, “Avoid overly popular destinations such as Paris or London in favor of more off-the-beaten-path locations like Budapest or Buenos Aires, where the cost of living is much less.”
  • Do your research. Capdeville strongly encourages students not to simply pick the first program they find, as there can be large differences in cost depending on the option you go with. “Some options, like directly enrolling in a university overseas, are a lot cheaper than going through a U.S. university that has a campus abroad,” she notes.
  • Go during low season. Summer study abroad trips are a favorite, but they are also the most expensive as flights tend to skyrocket during this time. Selecting a fall or winter study abroad experience will likely cut airfare and accommodation costs dramatically. As an added perk, it also means you won’t have to deal with thousands of tourists.
  • Steer clear of unnecessary souvenirs. Gift shops are often one of the highest grossing components of any attraction, with marked up prices on must-have items to take back to visitor’s home countries. Instead of shelling out for that one-of-a-kind Vatican shot glass, try to find other meaningful and less expensive things to bring home, such as maps, postcards, museum stubs, or tour brochures.
  • Take the time to research low-cost options. In addition to the actual study abroad experience, many students travel around surrounding cities or countries during their stay. To save money on these excursions, get to know local, low-cost airlines that offer cheaper flights in exchange for not reserving a seat or packing lightly. Hostels are also a great option for cheaper accommodation, just be sure to check reviews before booking a room.
  • Get to know your host city. While it might be tempting to travel to nearby cities or countries while abroad, Capdeville encourages her students to really soak in the local character and culture. “Getting to know your host city instead of traveling every weekend can help you save thousands of dollars on flights, train tickets, and unnecessary hotel bills,” she notes. “Spend your semester being a tourist in your home country instead of trying to visit a different country every weekend.”
  • Live as the locals do. “Don’t waste your money on food and drinks at a restaurant every single night,” cautions Capdeville. Many students want to live the high life while studying abroad, but this can mean their budget takes a big hit. Instead, consider alternatives. “Try shopping like the locals do, in groceries and markets, to really cut costs.”

25 Scholarships for Studying Abroad

Many students make the mistake of assuming they won’t be able to cover the cost of studying abroad. While travelling and living overseas may not be cheap, there are a number of ways to help make it affordable, including scholarships and grants. The funding options listed below help make studying overseas a possibility for almost any student.COLLAPSE ALLSEARCHBenjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship

  • Amount: Up to $5,000
  • Sponsoring Organization: U.S. Department of State
  • Application Deadline: Early March

The U.S. Department of State provides more than 2,900 Gilman scholarships each year to students with limited financial need who are studying a critical need language to intern or learn abroad.

Travel & Safety Tips for the Student Abroad

While travelling and studying abroad, in general, is safe, it’s always a good idea to be fully aware and know what you’re getting into before you go. Keep in mind the following top 10 tips when living and studying overseas.

STEP SMARTLY.

Before leaving for a study abroad trip, students should sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), a service of the Bureau of Consular Affairs via the U.S. Department of State. This is a free service that sends your travel information to the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. While everything will likely go well, it’s always best to be prepared. Enrolling in STEP gives travelling students access to the latest travel information and also provides assistance in the case of an emergency abroad. The program will also ensure that your loved ones back home are contacted if you encounter any major problems (such as a natural disaster) while travelling.

MAKE COPIES OF IMPORTANT DOCUMENTS.

In addition to making sure all important travel documents such as a passport, airline tickets, health insurance, student ID, and other information are all stored in a safe place during travel and after arrival, make copies of these documents just incase they are lost.

FAMILIARIZE YOURSELF WITH LOCAL CUSTOMS AND TRADITIONS.

Especially for students traveling to non-Western locations, research the area’s customs and traditions. “If it’s rude to speak loudly in your host country or wear certain clothing, avoid doing it so you don’t attract unwanted or negative attention,” suggests Capdeville. This will help ensure you don’t do anything offensive, illegal, or questionable and draw unnecessary attention to yourself.

KEEP A GROUP MENTALITY.

Especially when first arriving and getting to know surrounding areas, don’t go out alone. “Try to travel in pairs and always let student know where you are, where you’re going, and when you think you’ll be back,” counsels Capdeville. Chances are there will be lots of students from various universities arriving for the same reason, so make friends and spend at least your first week getting to know the city as a team. Using location services on your phone can also provide help. “Enable tracking on your mapping apps,” suggests Capdeville.

KEEP IN TOUCH.

Upon arrival, let friends and family know your address and contact details in your new accommodations. Also, a cheap local phone with a data plan is well worth the cost. In addition to keeping up with others in your group during your trip, you can easily call for help if need be.

BLEND IN.

This not only makes you less of a target for pickpockets and scammers, but you also learn more about the culture of your temporary home by emulating local dress and customs and becoming immersed in the crowd.

GET AROUND… SAFELY.

The vast majority of those who study abroad won’t have access to private transportation, leading them to rely on public trains, trams and buses. While these are a great option for getting around, students should be very aware of their surroundings. Additionally, many unlicensed cabs exist, so make sure you choose one through a company you’ve researched. “Try and plan where you’re going and how you’ll get there before you leave your house so you can avoid looking at maps on the street,” suggests Capdeville. “You might become a target if you are obviously lost.”

IDENTIFY THE GOOD AND BAD PARTS OF THE CITY.

While most university campuses are in a safe part of town, nights out and adventures can quickly lead students to less favorable parts of town. It’s best to learn the different neighborhoods and try to read the local news to learn about unsafe areas to avoid.

CARRY DEFENSE.

Whether mace, pepper spray, or a whistle, it never hurts to have these items within easy reach should the worst happen. Many students keep these items on their key chains so they can be quickly used if needed.

DON’T BE FLASHY.

Everyone wants to have high-quality photographs to remember their trip, and this often means having a nice camera in tow. Just remember to keep it – and other valuables – out of sight as much as you can. If you’re going to have it out, invest in a strap (without snaps or easily disconnected parts) and wear it around your neck so it can’t be easily lifted off of you.

5 Apps to Help Students Stay Safe While Abroad

Additional Safety Resources

No matter where a student chooses to study abroad, being familiar with the local area and customs can go a long way in staying safe. The best-prepared students will do research on these topics before their trip to ensure they blend in and don’t bring attention to themselves. Some top resources about overseas study safety are provided below.

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