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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Spain 2010

A Semester in the Basque Country of Spain

August 23rd-December 19th, 2010

Trip Conception, Goals, and Planning:

Pure pragmatics led me to Pamplona. I was studying Spanish and Journalism, and looking to study abroad. The program at the University of Navarra Pamplona was the obvious fit – the only Journalism program taught in a language other than English. When I thought about it, though, I realized that I wouldn’t have chosen to go anywhere else. As I began to make more solid plans, I asked my Scottish friend Allan to go there with me a week ahead of time, so we could see Barcelona and Valencia and attend the Tomatina tomato fight in Bunyol before my classes started. And once I was there, of course, I went on dozens of day trips and weekend trips all over Spain (particularly the north).

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Considerations/Advice:

Cost: This trip was unimaginably expensive. Just kidding, but as it was an entire semester away it’s a bit more complicated than normal to sum up the costs. Essentially, I was paying my home university normal tuition, as well as a study abroad fee. It cost me about $1300 to get to Pamplona from Florida, and back again. Apartments in Pamplona usually run 250-400€ a month. Grocery costs are roughly comparable to in the United States. When I took weekend trips, hostels usually cost about 25€ a night, and transportation varied but buses were about 35€ roundtrip to Madrid or Barcelona, 15€ to San Sebastian, Vitoria or Bilbao, 20€ to Zaragoza, etc. My biggest splurges were the Multiaventura canyoning experience, at 125€ (overnight, with meals, equipment, instructors and transportation included), and the U2 concert in San Sebastian (tickets were 60€).

Thinking Ahead: I started applying to study abroad almost a full year in advance. Getting a VISA was tricky and took a few months and a lot of paperwork. I got my apartment lined up ahead of time, but it was difficult and I shouldn’t have bothered – it’s much easier to arrange once you arrive, if you’re brave enough to show up without a place to go. I didn’t really book anything more than a week ahead of time. The MAJOR exception to this was for Tomatina – I booked the hostel in Valencia several months in advance.

Timing: Since I went to Pamplona for the Fall/Winter semester,  I got to experience the leaves changing colour, the first snows, the Christmas season, etc. Tomatina takes place the last Wednesday of August, so that works out perfectly if you’re planning to study in Spain during the Fall. We had really lovely weather in Pamplona until quite late in the semester. As I see it, the big disadvantage of going in the fall is that the weather gets worse instead of better as time goes on, you make travelling friends and decide where you want to go.

Food: Spanish food is quite good, especially if you like fish, ham, eggs, olive oil, potatoes, and tomatoes. The north of Spain is famous for Pintxos, their delicious take on tapas. Things like Tortilla Española (a thick omelette full of soft potato), Paella de Mariscos (a boiled, then baked rice dish with seafood and lots of saffron), Patatas Bravas (chunky fried potatoes served with garlic mayo and spicy sauce), and Croquetas (croquettes filled with bechamel and microscopic pieces of chicken or ham) quickly became my daily bread. For sweets, I recommend Colocao (hot chocolate American style – easy to order in any cafe) with Garrotes (also called Napolitanas, basically chocolate bread)… or, if you want to get fat fast, Chocolate (thick Spanish style  drinking chocolate) with Churros (deep fried pastries coated in sugar). There aren’t a lot of good ethnic restaurants, but if you’re craving something different it’s easy enough to find the ingredients to make your own Asian or American food. Tiny Asian markets are common, and if you’re willing to pay a premium, you can find almost anything in the grocery section of the huge department store, Corte Inglés.

Getting Around: Bus is usually the way to travel – they’re cheaper and much more common than trains in Spain. As long as you’re following the beaten path, there are buses galore and life is easy. Of course, getting to natural areas and tiny villages is a challenge without a car. Flying is sometimes a surprisingly decent option for crossing Spain, if you look online for cheap rates.

Language: Catalan, Basque, and Galician are very real, but a foreigner will never need to know a word of them. If you know Spanish, you’re all set, and people are usually reasonably patient with you. Trying to get by with just English is a good deal harder. It depends on where you go, but Spaniards aren’t as multilingual as Northern Europeans in general.

Other: I was extremely impressed by Spain during my stay there. What struck me the most was the diversity of what it had to offer  – the Spain you hear about most often in America really only represents old fashioned Madrid and Southern Spain (and modern Barcelona, to a lesser extent), and in Europe they think of Spain as nothing more than a giant beach. But in Madrid I found palaces and museums to rival those of Paris, in Asturias and the Basque Country sheer seaside cliffs and quaint villages like you’d expect from Ireland, in Galicia the last functioning Roman lighthouse, and the last fully intact Roman walls, and in Navarra – you have to see Navarra yourself to believe it.

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Itinerary:

I flew with my friend Allan into Barcelona on August 23rd, and did a little sightseeing there before heading to Valencia for the Tomatina tomato fight in Bunyol on August 25th. After another day relaxing in Valencia, we moved on to Pamplona, where I would spend the next four months. We also squeezed in a day in Puente la Reina, a small town nearby, before Allan went back home.

International Orientation was August 30th, and on the 31st the new students took a trip to San Sebastian for a day in the sun before classes started on September 1st. As September went on, I snuck away long enough to return to San Sebastian, as well as visit the Basque Country’s other two capitals, Vitoria (where we toured a cathedral under construction) and Bilbao (home of the Guggenheim). I also joined my university’s Club de Montaña (Mountain Club), and our first excursion was a canyoning adventure in Aragon. I saw September out with a surfing trip in Biarritz.

In October, I traveled further and longer before it got too cold and finals too close. Club de Montaña took us for hikes in the Pyrenees and in the Selva de Irati, and I saw the U2 concert in San Sebastian. I visited one friend down south in Alicante and another for her 21st birthday in Madrid. I took my longest trip in the last days of October, when I went couchsurfing in Gijon, Asturias before meeting friends for a long weekend in Galicia.

In November and December, I started to settle down and into life in Pamplona. Still, I found time to visit Zaragoza, walk a bit of the Camino de Santiago, and take a few road trips around my home state of Navarra before I had to go home on December 19th.

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Posts about this trip:

(Check back on this section from time to time – I’ll continue to put up new links!)

Journal Entries:
Sea, Sky, and Sculpture in San Sebastian (San Sebastian, País Vasco – 8/31)
Bilbao – Bigger, Brighter, Better (Bilbao, País Vasco – 9/12)
Fresh Bull Eggs and Googly Eyes
(Bilbao, País Vasco – 9/12)
The Guggenheim (Bilbao, País Vasco – 9/12)
The Witch Caves of Navarre (Zugarramurdi, Navarre – 12/7)
In Ochagavía (Ochagavía, Navarre – 12/8)

Photography: Vitoria of the Bean Eaters, The Castle of Olite, Cumbres Borrascosas