So you’re toying with the idea that you might want to take your academic (or lack thereof) endeavors overseas. Maybe you’re looking for an excuse to get to travel on the dime of your parentals or student loans or just want your coveted picture pushing up the Leaning Tower of Pisa like all your friends have on Facebook from their study abroad experience, regardless of your motive, you’ve come to the right post!
Studying abroad was one of the main catalysts for change in my life, and in retrospect, I wish I had done a year rather than a semester, shit, I wish I had done all of my studies in another country! I learned so much about the world, myself, what I’m truly interested in and the type of people I want to be in my life, so hopefully, you too will have as an enlightening experience as I did, and I can pretty much guarantee you will.
I’m going to share with you the time-saving and helpful tips in choosing the right study abroad program for you that I wish someone had shared with me when I was in university not so long ago.
Choose where you want to go
Has learning a new language always been a fantasy for you that seventh grade Spanish and Rosetta Stone just can’t satiate? Then pick a place where you can easily immerse yourself in the culture and avoid speaking English. I wanted to learn Spanish and so I chose to study abroad in Barcelona, but when I arrived, I quickly learned the lengua numero uno there is actually Catalan, and I had a tougher time learning Spanish as anytime I spoke with a local in Spanish or even English for that matter, I was quickly responded to in Catalan and I ended up learning some sort of hybrid language that took me a couple months in Argentina to straighten out.
My advice is to pick a country’s second or third tier city. For example in Spain, not Madrid or Barcelona, think Salamanca, Malaga, Alicante, Valencia, Segovia. You will have a much more authentic experience than going to a huge city that is full of tourists and thousands of other study abroad students. The locals will be much more inclined to interact with you and become friends and learning a language will be much easier and productive.
Keep these things in mind as well:
Cost of Living You will have a much larger spending capacity in Latin America and Asia than in Europe, learned this one the hard way.
Time of Year – Fall Semester is much warmer in Europe, but is colder in South America the further you get from the equator.
Ease of Travel - You will probably want to travel on weekends and breaks, so research nearby places that you really want to visit that are accessible from your place of study.
Choose what kind of program you want to go on
Studying abroad was my chance to take classes I normally wouldn’t be able to like art history, modern art and intense Spanish classes. Yes, I could have taken all of those at my university (U of Miami), but it’s one thing to talk about gothic cathedrals and look at slides from your professor’s own travels, but it’s another to have your teacher say “let’s go for a walk” and stroll out the classroom to visit century old buildings, world-famous museums and other historic sites of interests.
You have a variety of options for studying abroad like doing an exchange at a foreign university where you actually enroll in their system or by signing up for a private program like CEA, API (the one I chose), or CIEE which usually set up their own classes and hire professors directly (not as authentic an experience of studying in a foreign uni and more of a study abroad than an exchange). Below are some things to keep in mind when choosing the right study abroad program:
What programs does your University Study Abroad office already offer?
Your search for the right program should start at your study abroad office. They have partnerships with many universities all over the world, and, if you find the right program for you already offered at your school, it will save you a lot of headache with foreign tuition payments, transferring credits etc. as all of those things have been sorted out already. The only problem is you can often find cheaper ways of going to the same place you desire by going through an independent program like mentioned above, but this requires a lot of research and making sure your credits will transfer, etc.
Get all of your classes approved for transfer credit before going to study abroad!
I can’t reiterate this one enough. I had a lot of friends who just picked a private program not pre-approved by their home university, only to return back to find out none of their classes could transfer and they ended up having to stay an extra semester at school! The best thing to do is pick classes that are either offered at your current school so an equivalence can be established, or make sure that if you want to take “Guatemalan Basket Weaving” or something on those lines that you can receive generic arts credit or w/e the department that makes most sense for your class of choice.
Ask your potential study abroad program for the class syllabus (they always have them) and go to the department at your home university and ask for the chairperson to sign off on the equivalence.
Once you have all the signatures you need, go to your academic advisor, show them everything and make sure you both are on the same page. I did my due diligence and all of my classes transferred over and it was a huge relief.
Save your elective credits for Studying Abroad
Unless you’re a med student and want to take “Medicine in Mexico” abroad, save your elective credits for studying abroad. That way you can take unique classes like Art, Music, Culture, etc and really get to learn about the place you’re staying in depth without the rigors of your normal studies at home (chemistry, biology, math, terrible).
Choose the right living arrangement
Depending on where you go, there will be multiple living arrangements available and believe it or not, a lot of home university study abroad offices don’t offer much in the way of helping you find a place to live while you’re studying abroad, private programs are usually pretty good about it. Below are some of the popular options and their pros and cons.
Homestays are more popular in places like Latin America where local families will actually give you a room in their home to stay, provide you with meals, bring you to their cousin’s house for family BBQ’s and basically take you in as one of their own (hopefully). While I never experienced a homestay, I’ve heard both good and bad things.
Pros – Someone cooking for you, little brothers and sisters you never had, maybe a sibling close to your own age to make friends with, immersion into the local culture, great way to practice a new language.
Cons - Some host families will have a curfew or not like you going out late at night (understandable I guess), you don’t have much decision making power in what’s for dinner…You probably can’t bring anyone home with you at night.
Depending on where you are studying, there might be a student dorm available for you to stay. While this might be what you already know best, dorms in Europe and other places aren’t usually the same setup or feel as an American style dorm.
Pros – Easy to meet people, on or adjacent to campus.
Cons – Rules, loud at sometimes, at the mercy of others if sharing a bathroom, roomates.
This is the recommended choice in my opinion as you might have the opportunity to be placed in an apartment with locals who will help with immersion. An apartment will hopefully mean a kitchen and your own room which will offer you some privacy and flexibility to define your own lifestyle:
Pros – You can cook your own food, hopefully your own room, have friends over, affordable depending on how many roommates you have and location.
Cons – noisy if your flatmates are having friends over that you didn’t invite, can get messy.
Hopefully this post gave you some ideas of what to do and NOT to do when choosing a study abroad program. Here are some other helpful links to aid you in your search for the right study abroad program.
StudyAbroad.com – Virtually every program is on here with great search criteria to narrow them down!
InternationalStudent.com – Another great program searching resource with a helpful blog, they also have some great contests to win scholarships.
GoAbroad.com – Good study abroad resource that has tabs for finding housing, graduate school abroad programs, jobs and scholarships as well.