Urban vs. Rural Study Abroad Experiences

Studying abroad in China's rural countryside

If a student who studied abroad in Kunming, China were to share travel stories with a friend who studied in Shanghai - the two may find that while they were in the same country, they had very different experiences. The pace of life varies across China, which results in even more local customs within the already unique national culture. This is true not only for China; it applies on a much grander scale. Just as the American way of life differs from New York to Arkansas, there exists a diversity of cultures and lifestyles not only across borders, but within borders.

As the number of students interested in studying abroad continues to grow, so does the number of available study abroad programs. Students are not just studying in the same major cities that the study abroaders of yesteryear did - instead, students have options not only for which country they would like to study abroad in, but also what part of that particular country to choose.

You will quickly realize the obvious differences between the lifestyles and people of rural areas versus urban places, and understand just how skewed an understanding of the population you will have if you only experience one of the two. Some programs actively expose students to the varying lifestyles within a country; others, however, do not. While it is important to try to see and experience both, you may ultimately have to choose one as your sweet home away from home.

In the instance where a decision on where to study within a country must be made, we encourage you to contemplate the following factors:

Urban Study Abroad Life

study abroad urban city China mongolia

Some of the largest international cities are the most attractive locations for study abroad students. We have been exposed to these cities in picture books, movies, and news - and it’s understandable why most students want to see it for themselves. “The experience of living in a global power hub can only enhance my study abroad experience, right?”

Urban areas are well equipped with modern amenities - from internet, telephone, television, and ample public transportation, the urban lifestyle is well connected. With widely available technology, life in the city is arguably more convenient. International dance clubs, shopping complexes, theaters, restaurants, etc. are all commonplace in big cities, giving students ample options for entertainment.

Another attractive element of city life is its concentration of places with cultural significance, such as famous buildings, museums, art, or design. These sights often inspire visits by many diverse groups of people, so in a city, it is likely that you will hear multiple languages and interact with people from all walks of life.

While all of these components of the big city life may sound appealing, they do come at a price, literally. Everything is typically more expensive in cities, including rent, food, and entertainment. While living in a city may be comfortable for a student who does not have any financial concerns, it can overwhelming for others who spend the majority of their money on rent instead of experiences.

Studying abroad in the urban environment of Singapore

Living in a city can pose unique challenges for students interested in cultural immersion. While there will undoubtedly be hints of the culture around every corner, cities are generally the first area of a country to become more internationalized. Familiar food and products will not be as difficult to find in urban areas. Similarly, it may be easier to find friends from your home country in a city. While these friendships may be more comfortable or easily made, they do not necessarily enrich your study abroad experience.

Large metropolitan areas are arguably more dangerous than their quiet, countryside counterparts. With noisy traffic, little natural landscapes, and a generally more polluted environment, the urban backdrop may not be the best fit for all study abroaders.

Country Study Abroad Life

Many students have come back from a semester spent in rural areas with fascinating tales of kindness and honesty. In contrast to an urban study abroad experience with modern buildings and convenient transportation, study abroad experiences set in rural areas tend to have a more natural environment to offer.

This pastoral environment comes with less pollution, fewer crimes, and a general ease that is hard to find on busy city streets. In the more relaxed environment, you may find a sense of community with the local people and make an identity for yourself. It may be easier to make friends in rural areas as most will recognize you as a newcomer, and will be curious about your background and your interest in studying abroad.

africa study abroad rural landscape

Like big cities versus smaller towns, a rural experience also has a spectrum of options. In some places, you will really be living "in the sticks," possibly without running water or electricity, where your free time from working on the farm is spent sitting in the shade. Other rural places may be more connected to the big urban city centers. Buses, taxis, and trains may be more difficult to come by in rural areas, making it inconvenient to explore the city, or a nearby area, in a short amount of time. Without modern conveniences, it seems the people in rural areas survive on friendships and a good sense of humor.

This simpler way of living is appealing to students on many levels. As you are continuing to discern the way of your life, this may be a great time to have a "reality check" about your own culture and way of living. The close community offered in rural communities will help you really connect with your studies in a way that the anonymous lifestyle of a big city cannot.

Here, you will not be overcrowded by people, and you will breathe in cleaner air. Rural areas are comfortable, and safe. If your security is a big issue for your parents as you are deciding to study abroad, a small community with a tight-knit group of people may be a more appealing choice. Your neighbors will not be strangers and you will have plenty of opportunity to interact with other students and townspeople. Many times, a rural experience means a homestay, which can give you a first-hand look into the lifestyle of the local people. Cultivating these relationships from such an intimate level will have a long-lasting and profound impact on the lessons you learn from your study abroad experience.

Choose Your Destination

Maintaining a comfortable living environment has an important effect on not only what you learn, but how you learn, so it is wise to choose a study abroad destination based on the living situation that sounds the most ideal. If you are coming from a small town, the big city experience may be a new and exciting adventure, perfect for complementing your study abroad experience. For a person who wants to get to the nitty gritty of a country's traditional culture, somewhere more remote and off the beaten path may provide them with more appropriate experiences.

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Photo Credits: Author.
Megan Lee

Megan Lee is an international educator, traveler, and writer. She currently leads study abroad programs in China and the South Pacific. Keep up with her on Twitter @peglegmeg and Google+.