Three Steps to Choosing a Study Abroad Program

After a lot of preparation, paperwork, and choices, I’m finally ready to start studying abroad. In the end, I settled on programs in Pamplona (Spain), Bonn (Germany), and Bergen (Norway). Although I am extra lucky in being able to study abroad not one but three semesters, it was still hard for me to narrow my choices down to three when my school offered dozens of options. Here are some of the criteria I thought about when making my decisions, and can recommend to others struggling to choose a program:

1.) Research Programs

Before you can follow any of the other steps, you should have some idea of what’s out there – what the raw possibilities are for your major, university, and budget, and what criteria are worth weighing against each other. Usually, this will narrow your options, but not make the final decision for you.

2.) Assess Your Main Goals

For some people, living with a hostfamily is the perfect way to polish language skills and get a personal look at a foreign culture... other students find that it limits their freedom to travel and party while abroad.

What are the most important things for you, personally, to get out of your study abroad experience? Although everyone I’ve ever talked to has come back from their semester or year abroad with stories about how much fun it was, how it changed their life and made them more confident, worldly, etc… the experience is still slightly different for each person, and you should consider your priorities carefully. For example, if you haven’t been abroad before and are slightly nervous about doing so, but want to expand your horizons in a manageable leap and have some fun, you might look into an English language program – either in an English speaking country, or in a program that offers classes taught in English abroad. Not having a language barrier to contend with will cut the stress in half – and you’ll still have fun and meet people from all over the world.

Do you want to become fluent in a foreign language instead? An exchange program might be best, as these offer near-complete immersion with the native student population. On the other hand, a specialty program that puts you with other international students might be a wonderful way for you to meet people from all over the world. Are you planning to travel? Many people use their semester abroad as a springboard to see the rest of Europe. (or Asia, or South America, or Africa…) If this is you, look for a program in a city that has good transport connections with other places you’d like to go. Other people would rather study in a more isolated location, say, a small town in the mountains, where they can really sink into the authentic local lifestyle.

For me personally, I knew that I wanted to improve my language skills, especially my Spanish and my German, so right away I narrowed my choices to those programs that used my target languages as the primary languages of instruction. After doing steps 1 and 2, I had already picked one of my programs – the one in Pamplona, Spain. I had to pick at least one program from my school’s Journalism school, and that one was the only one that wasn’t taught in English.

3.) Think about your Comfort Zone

Any sort of study abroad will take you at least partly out of your comfort zone – that’s part of the fun! Still, you should think about the things that make you feel more comfortable – the cultures, climates, and landscapes that you feel you fit into well. You may choose to pick the place where you fit in best, or you may choose to stretch your boundaries further in some way or another. Still, you should be conscious of either decision.

I had already decided that I wanted to study in Germany, but I was having a hard time picking between several programs offered there by my school. Ultimately, I decided to study in Bonn, because my second choice, Tübingen, was a small city in the mountains – just like the locations of my other two programs. I decided that studying in a slightly larger city, like Bonn, was a good way to break out of my comfort zone and do something different. Besides, Bonn has better rail connections to other European cities, and I’d like to travel during my stay.

On the other hand, when picking my third and final study abroad program, I was torn between Latin America, Finland, Italy, Japan, and Norway. All were tempting, but in the end I decided to go with my comfort zone – Norway. A semester was a long time to spend somewhere as different as Japan, I thought, but too short of a time to say, set down even the shallowest of roots in Finland, a country notorious for slow growing friendships. Besides, I knew more Norwegian than I did Finnish, Italian, or Japanese, and since my goal was fluency, I had a better chance of meeting it in Norway. I’m sure I would have loved going to any of the other countries as well, but I didn’t want to stay home because I couldn’t make a decision, either!

– Written June 6th, 2010

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