study abroad 101: how to choose a study abroad program

So you want to go abroad.

Welcome to the best decision of your life!!!!! I can confidently say that the summer/semester/year/??? that you spend in a foreign country will be one of the most rewarding and challenging times of your life thus far.

Today on the blog, I’m starting a little series called “Study Abroad 101,” a four-part series to help you make your decision and preparation for studying abroad just a little bit easier!

Part 1: How to choose a study abroad program.

Going from “I want to go abroad” to “I want to go abroad to ______ with ______ program” can be a difficult step—with so many incredible destinations to choose from, how can you possibly decide?  This is a question that I’ve wrestled with a lot in both my experience studying abroad for a summer and my preparation to study abroad for the coming semester.  I’ve come up with five main questions that you should consider when deciding where your adventures will take you:

1) Location

This is perhaps the question that trips people up the most because it’s the one that seems the most open and variable.  Do you go somewhere you’ve always wanted to go?  A city or country that you already know and love?  There are certainly pros and cons to both: if you go to an entirely new place, you’ll have so much to explore and take in—but what if you decide the culture isn’t the right fit for you?  If you go somewhere you’ve already been, you have the comfort of knowing you like the place, but you won’t have the experience of getting to know it for the first time again.

There are two other factors that I think are directly tied to location:
Language | If you’re majoring or minoring in a foreign language, you might already be planning to study abroad in that country or region.  Even if you’re not, going abroad to a country whose primary language isn’t English (or your native tongue) can be a great way to stretch yourself!  If you want the comfort of knowing you’ll always be able to communicate and read transit signs, that’s something to consider when you look at where programs are located.
Weather | Weather can be a huge factor in how your study abroad experience ultimately plays out.  Do you love the cold and snow?  Absolutely hate it?  That’s good to know when you’re picking a program.  And “Europe” as a region can vary drastically in its climate—don’t pack for Barcelona if you’re going to Stockholm!  Also keep in mind that if you choose a destination that has distinct seasons, you’ll have to pack for that.  You wouldn’t want to be stranded in a mid-November snowstorm still in the clothes you packed for August!

If you want the flexibility to travel to lots of different countries and rack up stamps in your passport, then Europe may be for you.  If you don’t mind a big time change and want to be able to speak English, maybe try Australia or New Zealand!  Up for an adventure?  Look at programs that will take you off the beaten path, like South America or Africa.

2) Timing

This is another huge question to consider when you decide that you want to study abroad at some point in the future: when do you want to go?  While a semester might be the most “traditional” option, there’s lots of others to choose from.  Semesters are great because you get the benefits of lots of cultural immersion and a few months to call a new place home, but also get to spend time at home and at your home institution.  More ambitious students might choose to study abroad for a whole year, either on the same program or on two different programs.  Summer is a great alternative if you don’t want to miss out on anything at home—like classes, friends, sports seasons (y’all, my sadness about missing out on the Wake soccer and football seasons this year are too real), and family life.

3) Major/Program of Study

Your program of study can help you narrow down from a seemingly infinite list of abroad programs to choose from.  If your major is open or flexible and you can transfer in a lot of credits, you have a few more options.  If you are a semester ahead or haven’t reached that “crunch time” for getting in enough credits for graduation, that also gives you a little bit more flexibility about what program you choose.  If you’re in a program like business or sciences, it can sometimes be harder to find study abroad programs that fit your majors, but fear not!  There are now specialized study abroad programs specifically for these majors and programs—if you want to go abroad, you can find a way to make it happen, regardless of your major.  Often, students in these more strict programs also find that summer can be a great option because you don’t miss out on any classes (like tricky-to-schedule labs) that happen during the semester!

4) Living Situation

Different programs have different living arrangements—sometimes one program will have multiple options to choose from!  Do you value cultural integration and want to get to know many people who live in that country or city?  A program that offers a homestay component might be the right choice for you.  Do you want to get to know other students on your program and form relationships with them?  Some programs offer student apartments or dorms for participants.  Some programs provide housing, while others ask that you arrange that for yourself.

5) Cost

You knew it was going to come up on this list eventually, right?  This is a really important factor to consider.  When I say “cost,” I really mean two different things:

Program Cost | This is the most obvious part of cost.  How much is it going to cost you to spend a certain amount of time living in a foreign country?  While foreign study often seems like it’s ridiculously expensive, it’s becoming more affordable for more people.  Compare the tuition of various programs and see if it includes books, flights, transportation or grocery stipends (depending on your location, you might be taking public transit to get to and from class, which you might not do at home!), and more.  When I compare my home institution’s tuition to my semester abroad’s tuition, I’ll actually be paying less in tuition fees to spend four months in Denmark instead of Winston-Salem, NC—who knew!
Scholarships are also definitely a possibility; be sure to look on both your study abroad program’s website and your university’s website, because both might offer various scholarships!  There are also lots of scholarship programs that don’t go through academic institutions, so be sure to look into those.  If you already receive scholarships, most institutions will let you transfer this aid when you go abroad, meaning that you’ll receive the same amount in scholarships or other financial aid as you do regularly.  Don’t automatically assume that it’s going to be too expensive and you won’t be able to afford it, because there’s lots of ways to make studying abroad more accessible than it used to be.

Cost of Living | Cost of living varies pretty dramatically between places, and can be one of those “hidden costs” that you don’t realize before you go.  You’re going to have to buy groceries, replace toiletries, and—let’s be real— check out the main shopping destinations wherever you go.  But how much will that cost you?  A tool that I like to use is this Cost of Living Calculator from BankRate, which does pretty much exactly what it sounds like it does: compare the cost of living in two different areas (for example, where you live right now and where you’re going to be studying abroad, or two different destinations you’re considering).  Another fun statistic to use is the “Big Mac Index,” which was developed by The Economist as a way to measure purchasing-power parity (PPP) between countries (my two semesters of high school econ are being stretched to their limit right now).
Denmark, for example, has a pretty high cost of living, but they’re also a state with an advanced federal welfare program, meaning that once I receive my Danish residency permit I’ll be entitled to such state benefits like free healthcare and other social services.  Other countries might have a much lower cost of living; it is indeed a fact that in some Eastern European countries, beer is quite literally cheaper than water!

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