The most important decision when it comes to Studying Abroad is deciding to go. Simply taking that big step out of your front door and into the unknown is one that keeps so many students from experiencing one of life’s most exciting, freeing, and personal-growth nurturing opportunities. Wherever you go, I can promise that you will learn amazing things, make new friends and memories, and come home changed for the better. But it’s still important to take some time and pick the study abroad destination that is best suited to your interests and goals.
Even though I was extremely lucky in being able to study abroad more than once, it was still hard for me to narrow down my choices when my school offered dozens of options. Here are the steps I took in ultimately deciding on Pamplona (Spain), Bonn (Germany), and Bergen (Norway):
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. For example, most academic programs allow at least some sort of study abroad opportunity, but some may encourage a full year abroad, while in other programs you may face graduate delays if you take even a semester away from the rigid class plan. Some options may be priced out of your budget range, but there are so many Study Abroad options that you shouldn’t give up. Some programs are actually offer a cheaper way to get credit than staying at home, either because the cost of living is cheaper in the host country or because you will offset your costs through research, teaching English, or some other working contribution. Usually, doing research will help you narrow the field, but not make the final decision for you.
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.
2.) Consider your Main Goals
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.
Are your interests mainly academic? Try to find a school that specializes in your subject, where you can attend lectures from the best in your field and rub shoulders with elite students and professors. Do you want to become fluent in a foreign language? 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. There’s no wrong or right way to study abroad. Just be honest with yourself about your real goals while you search, and you’ll have a more meaningful experience.
In my case, a big part of my motivation was to improve my language skills, especially Spanish and German. Right away, I narrowed my choices to those programs that used my target languages as the primary languages of instruction. After consider steps 1 and 2, I had already picked one of my programs. A program in Pamplona, Spain would let me graduate from my Journalism program on time while improving my Spanish.
Many people would laugh at my calling Bonn a ‘big city’, but its sky scrapers and subway system were further from my comfort zone than the mountain towns I lived in elsewhere.
3.) Consider 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.
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. But learning a new language can provide amazing, life-long benefits as well.
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 wanted 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!