How to Choose a Study Abroad Program When Location Doesn't Matter

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Sophia Lin

As someone who loves traveling, Sophia is especially passionate about life, which she explores through new challenging experiences and connecting with people.

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Choosing the perfect study abroad program is tough -- I know I certainly had a difficult time in choosing between my final two options! Both had a similar theme and course emphasis, but were operating in entirely different corners of the planet. I would go back and forth between my decision, interrogating close friends for their advice and opinion. In the end, my decision came down to prioritizing my values (and a little dash of following my gut!).

Whether you're thinking about when you should study abroad (Sophomore year? Junior year? Summer break?), for how long you should study abroad, or what exactly you'll study while studying abroad, a lot goes into your final decision. When I decided what mattered most to me, my choice was clear (psst! it's this program and I am so excited: IHP/SIT Program on Climate Change).

So if you're anything like me and willing to study abroad anywhere, here's some advice on how to choose a study abroad program when where you go doesn't matter.

If You Want to Learn a Foreign Language:

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Whether you’ve spent years studying another language, or have just begun a new foreign language, focus on finding a program that will allow you to master speaking and understanding it. You can spend years learning to read and write a language… but to really be able to speak it fluently, you practice speaking in live conversations with native speakers, and fortunately for you, there are plenty of programs that understand just that.

To make sure you achieve this goal, find a study abroad program that arranges living situations with a local host family, allows you to regularly interact with locals who speak the language, or -- if you're really up for a challenge -- directly enroll in a foreign university that allows you to take all your classes in that language. If you’ve just started a foreign language in college, you may be able to accelerate your learning of the language by studying abroad and taking intensive language courses too.

There are also those of you out there who just want to do an English-speaking program, which there are certainly options for as well.

If You Want to Focus on a Specific Subject:

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Going abroad can give you unparalleled opportunities within your academic field and, depending on the program you choose, even integrate academic studies with hands on experience. For example, if you’re interested in biodiversity you can find a program that lets you work hands on with wildlife or ecosystem management -- like the School for Field Studies program in Wildlife Management and Public Health. If your major is related to the arts, take classes in a city of world-class art museums (we hear Florence is pretty cool!).

If you want to be challenged at a world-class university like Oxford, you’ll likely find such program options to be an academically rigorous study abroad experience. Conversely, you may be looking to fulfill specific requirements and want to take basic classes similar to those offered at your own school. For direct enrollment students especially, we recommend that they offer classes related to your major -- ultimately, whether or not you can get some Gen Ed courses or credits towards your major may be the tie breaker between two programs.

If You Care Most About WHO You Study With

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This can refer to the many different people you’ll have the opportunity to meet. Whether that includes the peers accompanying you on your trip, the local students at the university you’ll take classes with, or those you’ll live with, such as your host family, dorm or apartment roommates, or neighbors, you’re sure to get to know many different kinds of people from unique backgrounds -– and hopefully make some lifelong friends and connections!

Another question pertaining to people and choosing a study abroad program is how immersed in the local culture you’ll be. Will you be surrounded with many Americans, or even students from your same school? If you choose something like Semester at Sea, you'll undoubtedly spend more time with fellow study abroaders than locals. And that's OK if that's what you want.

However, depending on your comfort level and desire to explore a new culture, finding a more diverse program that allows you to be better exposed to the country (or, direct enrollment) and its people may be a program for you.

On the flipside, if the thought of traveling alone makes you feel a little queasy, perhaps having some familiar faces surrounding you will be better for your first time abroad. Shorter summer programs are fantastic for this. Even though we do encourage students to study abroad without their friends (it's scary, but the good kind!), we understand that first-timers might have a little tougher go at it. In the end, pick a program that best suits what you think your study abroad needs will be, on the ground, in a foreign country.

  • Potential study abroad goal: Get to know the local people of a particular country or culture, or have a more comfortable experience studying abroad with many other American students.
  • Suggested program: Direct Enrollment at John Cabot University in Rome

What Non-Academic Experiences Do You Want?

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Some say the Millennial Generation is characteristically more concerned about having a special experience rather than acquiring material possessions. We value making once-in-a-lifetime, lifelong memories. Study abroad will certainly be a chapter in your life where you’ll get to experience many exciting, eye-opening, and challenging moments that will help your personal growth and development, as well as enhance the rest of your life. So why not make sure you choose your program based on the non-academic experiences you'll gain while abroad and use it to check off some items on your bucket list.

Have you always wanted to explore the immense array of wildlife and adrenaline-packed nature outings in a place like Costa Rica? Backpack across Southeast Asia, Latin America, or Europe? Are you someone who would prefer an urban environment at the center of minds and ideas meeting, a rugged and rural village, or something in between?

Keep in mind that certain providers will incorporate excursions and travel directly into their programs, like Carpe Diem, whereas a spring semester in Australia may set you up perfectly to spend the summer backpacking through Southeast Asia afterwards. Research your options well and decide for yourself if they offer the kind of lifestyle, environment, and activities you would like during your study abroad program, or if you can accomplish these goals on the side.

These are just a handful of the possible factors that may be most important to you when considering which study abroad program is for you. They also may overlap, with foreign language studies also counting as academic requirements, or people helping shape your experience... etc. When it boils down to it, only you will know which type of program will be best for you.

Empower yourself by making sure you’ve put in a solid effort researching and collecting as much information as you can to make a better-informed decision. That includes asking around for advice from people whose opinions you value, as well as reading program reviews or getting in touch with alumni of the program you’re considering. The key, in the end, is to find a balance of identifying what you truly value and what you would like to take away from your study abroad experience.

When the program is chosen and you’re busy packing and preparing for going overseas, know that whatever study abroad program you choose, you should hold up a superbly positive attitude and open mind. Through all the unexpected, trying, homesick, and culture-shocking times, being upbeat and flexible will help you make the most of your study abroad experience.

I guarantee that you’ll have not just the time of your life, but shape who you are and how you think, make some amazing close friends, and live a dizzying array of wonderful memories as a result!

Photo Credits: API Study Abroad and Carpe Diem.