Evaluating a Program for Studying Abroad
After you've selected a variety of potential study abroad programs, you need to take a careful look at each program. Maybe you're wondering why you placed a particular program on your list of possibilities. Was it simply because the brochure looked cool? Be honest with yourself. Studying abroad is an important educational and financial investment that you're making in yourself!
The following sections cover the major considerations for evaluating study abroad programs. In addition to these, remember that cost, safety, and health are other important considerations.
Location, location, location!
A program's location definitely has an impact on your decision. Deciding to study abroad is impossible without considering where in the world you want to go for a semester or year. And the options literally extend around the globe.
Western Europe is the most popular study abroad destination for U.S. students. In fact, two-thirds of all U.S. study abroad students go there, primarily because Europe has many extensive and well-developed study abroad programs. And yet its popularity doesn't mean Western Europe is the best place for you to study. Where you need to study depends upon personal, academic, and home-university considerations. Each town, city, country, region, and continent has something to offer. Although no one place is likely to suit all your desires, some will come close.
These days, students are diversifying, visiting regions other than Western Europe because of attractive academic, language, cultural, internship, and traveling opportunities. Consider programs in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, South America, the islands of the South Pacific, and the former Soviet Union. You can study rain forests in South America, politics in Eastern Europe, Hinduism in India, or the roots of African music in Nigeria.
Challenge yourself to explore a culture that may be radically different than your own — it's not only an invaluable learning experience, but you also gain a better perspective of your own beliefs and traditions through different and unfamiliar cultural lenses.
Seventy-five percent of the world's population lives in developing nations. How does that affect world politics and history? You probably don't know that U.S. trade with developing countries currently approaches 40 percent of all U.S. imports and exports. How are U.S. politics affecting these developing nations? You'd probably be surprised. Because today's world is global in nature, and almost without boundaries because of the Internet, being able to focus your knowledge of a developing nation or simply any nation other than your own may become a major career asset. What has colonialism done to the developing nation you visit? What languages are the citizens learning in the country where you're studying? What primary language is used in higher education institutions where you spent a semester or two?
Tracing your roots
Although some students go abroad to discover more about a culture that is not their own, some do the exact opposite. For example, students from Arabic-speaking families often study in the Middle East, and Hispanic students may select any of the countries where Spanish is spoken. Likewise, Jewish students may choose to go to Israel, African American students may seek out a program located in Africa, and Asian American students may look to programs in Asia. Students search for information about their own culture, ancestors, national heritage, or ethnic and religious identities. Seeking your own identity is another excellent reason for pursuing studies abroad, and your experience will be just as rewarding as students who study abroad to find out about others. The hope is that you find what you're searching for, deepen your understanding of yourself, and come home more connected with your background.
Initially, students in search of their backgrounds always are perceived and treated as Americans, regardless of their efforts to blend in, properly speak the native language, or even look like the local people. So, be wary; your assimilation efforts may not always work the first few times around.
Mousing between city or country digs
Do you prefer studying in the city, the country, or in the suburbs somewhere in between? All three locations have something to offer. A large city often is a mecca of cultural experiences and social opportunities. On the flip side, cities tend to be more expensive, impersonal, trendy, and busy. Sometimes cities fail to have much of a national identity and you need to venture out to the country to experience it. On the other hand, although a suburb or rural area is often more traditional and offers plenty of contact with local residents, you may go stir crazy, feeling confined in such a small place. Think about what type of residential area your university is in now and ask yourself whether you want to live somewhere similar or different? Sometimes a city mouse can use a break from the city life.
Double-dipping: Visiting two countries
Despite the benefits of being in one place for a while, you may prefer traveling to several places during the time you spend abroad. Perhaps glimpses of many cultures, countries, or regions can help you reach a different goal, perhaps discovering common themes or issues in a number of places or exploring different forms of government, education, or healthcare.
Although finding and being approved for a study abroad program is going to be easier when it's based in one specific location with occasional visits to other nearby cities, programs that involve a high amount of travel do exist. Such programs frequently use travel as a way of comparing and contrasting differences in various locales. Semester at Sea, for example, enables students to compare and contrast the oceanography of different places along the Atlantic coast of the U.S.
Measuring compatibility with your home school
Some study abroad programs dovetail nicely with your home university's schedule and academics better than others. You want to attend a foreign university where the academic calendar is compatible with your home university's academic calendar, particularly if you are only going for one semester. You want to be able to return to your home university at a convenient time, like at the start of a fall or spring semester.
If your abroad university schedule is such that you have a month or two or three of downtime before being able to go back to your home university, make sure you have a way of keeping yourself busy. For example, if your abroad semester goes from July through November, what are you going to do until classes start up again? Travel? You could return home and try and make some extra money at a part-time job.
Choose an institution abroad that is as academically rigorous as your home university. You'll need to check out whether your abroad university offers your major and what level courses you can to take in that field. If the abroad university is going to limit you to entry level or intermediate level major courses, you may end up bored. If it's important that you do some advanced work in your major while you're abroad, make sure you're allowed to enroll in advanced courses.