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How to Study Abroad in Your Own Backyard

Times Square

You’ve eaten sushi so many times, it’s practically like you’ve been to Tokyo. All of your Spanish comes from Pitbull songs – and that’s really all the vocabulary you’re ever going to need. You’ve watched most of the 2010 World Cup, which taught you pretty much everything there is to know about South Africa. So why bother studying abroad, when you can get the same experience closer to home?

Okay, so these might not exactly be the best examples (I’m not sure we should be learning anything from Pitbull, for starters), but it’s not impossible to create something that resembles a study abroad experience without necessarily jetting around the world. It might not be the same as standing atop the Great Wall or wandering the halls of the Louvre, but with some persistence and a little creativity, you can DIY studying abroad into a great, valuable, and almost certainly less expensive learning experience.

We know the “abroad” part of studying abroad can be a challenge for many people, for a number of valid reasons: financial constraints, keeping scholarships, health concerns, jobs, family obligations -- pick your reason. It may seem unfair when everyone else is waving their plane tickets around and Instagramming an endless stream of Belgian beers and Moroccan street food, but staying put doesn’t mean you have to resign yourself to a semester of being home schooled, or picking up all your cross-cultural knowledge from the Travel Channel.

Yes, it might be a bit difficult to recreate a Tuscan countryside in your room, but there are a number of places, events, and organizations that can help you get more than just a taste of another culture, improve your language skills, and might even lead to travel opportunities in the future.

Here are a few ideas for how to study abroad without leaving your zip code:

Seek Out Cultural Institutes and Organizations

America Day in Tel Aviv

Plenty of countries, particularly those in Europe, have official international institutes that promote their language and culture abroad. These organizations can be a fantastic way to tap into cultural experiences that go far beyond simple language classes –- and the best part is, it comes straight from the source!

Some major players on the global scene include the Alliance Française (France), Goethe-Institut (Germany), British Council (United Kingdom), Instituto Cervantes (Spain), Instituto Camões (Portugal) and the awesomely-named Dante Alighieri Society (Italy).

These organizations have offices and cultural centers in various cities and countries across the world (many of the U.S.-based ones seem to be concentrated in Boston, New York, or Seattle, so you’re in luck if you’re near one of those cities) and some, like the Instituto Cervantes, offer a wide range of online courses and information in addition to their regular programming. Though these institutes are some of the largest, there are also many similar organizations for countries with slightly less widespread languages –- they might require a bit more research to find, but rest assured, they’re out there.

Fill Your Cultural Calendar

Learning about another culture is about so much more than simple language and geography, and you’ll only glimpse a small slice of life abroad if you don’t open yourself to less traditionally academic events. For most people, studying isn’t actually the most important part of study abroad (gasp!), so don’t fill your domestic version with only textbooks and quizzes.

Think about the aspects of your own culture that interest you most (theater, movies, dance, food, television, urban design or whatever else you find appealing) and look for the counterpart from the region or country that interests you.

All work and no play is no way to study abroad, so make sure you’re making learning fun!

Art in any form is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in diverse expressions of a place, people, or culture, and it provides an important counterbalance to straightforward studying.

Keep an eye on international dance groups coming through town; seek out speakers from your area of interest; peruse concert listings; become best friends with your local independent movie theater and watch for international film festivals; track down a restaurant that serves food from France, Spain, or wherever you're trying to learn about; assign your own reading lists of authors from a particular country; or do some combination of all of the above. Remember: all work and no play is no way to study abroad, so make sure you’re making learning fun!

Join a Club

Mexican Dancer

This might be a case of showing my Boston roots, but local universities –- your own or others –- are a stellar resource when it comes to cultural events. If there’s a decent-sized university nearby, there are almost definitely student groups representing the country or region that interests you. Some groups are more active than others, but such groups will often host speakers, performers, debates, or other events, and many such events are open to the public.

Of course, you don’t want to just go barging into a meeting full of people who have never met you, or seem like a drop-in cultural tourist, so be careful to ensure that you’re going into a space where you’re welcome, rather than intrusive.

A good way to do this is to start with large events –- dance shows, performances, barbecues, fundraisers and so on –- and talk to people once you’re there. Make some friends, sign up for emails and find out how you can get involved in activities that will connect you to the group and its cultural events.

Find a Language Exchange -- Or Host Your Own!

I’ll trade my language for yours. This is an ever-popular resource for expats attempting to learn a language and make new friends in their new city, but there’s no reason why you can’t do it at home. If there’s a large population representing your country of interest where you live, chances are there’s already some kind of program in place (Meetup is a great place to start looking). If not, you may have to go it alone, but there’s no reason to let that discourage you.

People, especially those new to a place, are often looking to make friends, and if there’s free language practice involved, even better! See if you can find someone from your study “abroad” location who might be willing to do a language exchange with you, meeting once a week and spending 45 minutes speaking in English and another 45 speaking in Arabic, for example.

There’s no reason it has to only be conversation, either. You can make it into a cultural exchange too by going to movies, cooking a dinner together, or anything else that might help deepen your understanding.

Having this depth of knowledge and familiarity with another culture will only make it that much more rewarding if and when you do travel to that country someday

Again, universities and cultural centers can be a great resource for finding conversation partners, but Couchsurfing (through their "meetups" section) and other similar sites are often a gold mine for such activities as well. Though it’s less of a permanent arrangement, chatting with visitors can be a dependable option, as they are more likely to have a flexible schedule and be open to spending a few hours over coffee or sightseeing.

In addition to practicing your language skills, interacting with a visitor from a country that interests you is a great way to get more insight into the real culture and people of that place. Plus, if you end up being friends, you’ll have a free place to stay in the future when you do get on that plane!

Find Open Courses Online

It seems like everyone’s jumping on the digital learning bandwagon these days, especially with the growing popularity of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs for short). While there’s plenty of ongoing debate about the merits and drawbacks of giant online courses, there’s something to be said for accessing world-class educational offerings in places you might otherwise never be able to go.

The top-flight US universities tend to get most of the press, but there are a number of courses from highly respected international universities offered through sites like Coursera and NovoEd. Whether you want to study Italian Renaissance architecture or brush up on your knowledge of Scandinavian film, you can make it happen, as long as you have reliable Internet and time to do the reading!

In some sense, there’s no way to replace a full immersion experience abroad –- there’s a reason why study abroad programs are so important, after all. Still, it’s important to remember that just because your “study abroad” experience is a bit unconventional, it doesn’t make it less challenging, interesting or enlightening.

Having this depth of knowledge and familiarity with another culture will only make it that much more rewarding if and when you do travel to that country someday –- if only because you won’t have to suffer through the typical first few weeks of being lost and confused at all times. So get out there, and start your study abroad, right here, right now!

Photo Credits: Brendan Lally, US Embassy Tel Aviv, and Wikimedia Times Square.

Photo of Natalie Southwick

Natalie has made appearances in 16 different countries to date. Her favorite is definitely Colombia, where she spent 3.5 years ogling mountains on a daily basis, eating an overwhelming amount of arepas and working with human rights organizations. She's currently finishing up a master's degree in Denver, where her main activities are trying not to get in fights about Boston sports teams and attempting to convince herself that the Rocky Mountains are just as good as the Andes, even though we all know that's not true.