You’ve dreamed about being able to study abroad, see famous sights, and travel. Finally you have the chance to do exactly that. You have the means to do it and are starting to look for schools. But where should you look for a school in order to get the most out of your study abroad experience? Where should you call home so that you maximize the time you have to study abroad?
In my junior year in college I studied at the University of Bordeaux, France, through a study abroad program sponsored by the University of California. When I first applied, I had a choice of a number of different countries with study abroad programs. Being an English major, my first choice was England. Because I had two years of college French, my second choice was France.
The Regents of the University of California, in their mysterious wisdom, chose to send this English major to France. Go figure. While at the time I was disappointed that I didn’t get my first choice, in hindsight going to France to study abroad ended up being the better choice for me – for a number of reasons.
Following are some key points I’ve learned are important to consider when choosing a place to study abroad.
Consider Places You Want to See
It’s a chance in a lifetime to get to study abroad. You will be in Europe or elsewhere for an extended period of time. Study abroad programs usually last a summer, quarter, semester, or year. You aren’t yet tied down to a job and a boss who says you can only take two weeks’ vacation each year. You’re probably not married with kids yet, so you are basically free to do what you want. You may never get this kind of chance again, so take full advantage of it.
Think of all of the places (we’ll use Europe here as an example) you’d like to see while you study abroad… the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Westminster Abbey, the Coliseum, Venice’s canals, the Swiss Alps, and so on. If you can’t quite decide what’s on your “must-see” list while you study abroad, ask yourself this. What would you regret not seeing if this were your only opportunity in life to do so? If you don’t see Michelangelo’s “David” or Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” in real life, for example, are you going to kick yourself for the rest of your life? If you don’t walk where the gladiators once did in the Coliseum, or go see famous cathedrals like Notre Dame, are you going to wish you would have? These are some tough decisions, but you need to make them in advance of picking a place where you are going to study abroad.
Tip: Ideally, your school or university should be more or less in the center of all the sights you want to see. Over the course of your study abroad program, this will maximize your time and minimize your spending.
What Languages Do You Speak, or What Languages Do You Think You Could Easily Learn?
If you are familiar with or fluent in any given language, you might want to study abroad in the country where people speak that language. In any case, definitely brush up on the language of the country to which you want to go, even if it’s just for a few days to see the sights.
Tip: Do make an effort to speak the local language. Don’t perpetuate the stereotype of “the ugly American”. You will be treated better by the locals.
Environment and Culture
How immersed into the culture do you want to get during your study abroad program? Do you want to get to know local people, or do you plan on mainly hanging out with other English-speaking people? How compatible do you think you will be with the country’s culture?
For example, I wouldn’t suggest that American women study in Saudi Arabia because of the extreme cultural restrictions put on women. On the other hand, a country like England has a culture somewhat like our own, and an American woman would hardly notice the difference between here and there.
Tip: When I was in Bordeaux on my study abroad program, I had a choice of rooming in the university dorms or staying in town with a family. I chose the latter and wouldn’t have had it any other way. You might want to do the same. Living in town immerses you into the culture so much more, and you get more out of your study abroad program.
Consider Your Heritage, Your “Roots”
If you have strong blood ties to a country, you might want to study abroad there. It could be that you might even have relatives in some particular country. Having family or deep roots in a country can be the deciding factor in choosing where to study abroad.
One young woman I knew was considering a study abroad program and wanted to see everything she could in Europe. But she was 2nd generation Irish and proud of her Irish heritage. So she gave up seeing much of Europe in order to study abroad in Ireland and see the home of her ancestors.
Tip: You might want to do some genealogy work before you go or talk to an older member of the family. They might be able to tell you where your great-great-great grandfather used to have a farm or other family history.
Talk to People Who Have Been in a Study Abroad Program Before
Talk to people who have been there, especially those who were in the study abroad program last year. They can give you a lot of valuable tips. They can tell you what it’s really like to study abroad, and they might be able to give you suggestions as to where to go
Tip: Talk to the student advisor in the study abroad program. He or she may have some insights you haven’t thought about before.
Follow Your Heart
Last but certainly not least, follow your heart. If you have a natural affinity for a particular culture, if your gut instinct is telling you go somewhere in particular, consider that country first for your study abroad program location.
With me, I had always liked France for no particular reason. In high school I remember putting a map of France on my bedroom wall and studying it, way before I ever thought of a study abroad program. Maybe some of my latent French blood was seeping to the surface. Maybe my French ancestors were whispering in my ears.
All I know is that my year in France with the UC Riverside study abroad program and all my travels in Europe affected me profoundly. You will come back a changed person – for the better.