With study abroad options all over the planet, you might be tempted to spin a globe and go where your finger lands. To make the most of the experience, though, pick your destination deliberately. Some students have known where they want to study abroad since they were kids, but others have a harder time settling on a destination. If you don’t have your heart set on any one place or region of the world, narrow down your choices wisely by considering a multitude of factors.
A huge part of the study abroad experience is learning from the locals. Communication plays a huge role. If you don’t speak the language, you could be limiting your experience to extended tourism. Consider a destination that speaks a language you’d like to learn or already know. If you speak or want to improve your Arabic, French, or Spanish, you’ll have plenty of locations to choose from; Arabic is the official or co-official language of 25 countries, French is spoken officially in 29 countries, and Spanish is prevalent in 20 countries. The majority of languages aren’t spoken in as many countries as Arabic, French, and Spanish are, so if you’re looking for a less common language, that alone might help you further narrow down your choices. Learning Dutch? You’ll only need to pick between the Netherlands, Belgium, and Suriname. Want to pick up Icelandic? Great! Iceland it is.
Don’t underestimate the role that weather plays in your everyday happiness. If you’ve spent your entire life in sunny Florida, you’re in for a shock when you land in Finland. Not only are the winters gloomy and cold, but the sun can disappear for days at a time. Does this intrigue you or does it repel you? Not all climates around the world are as harsh as Scandinavia’s, but you’ll still find stark differences between your destination and the United States, where most cities experience four distinct seasons. London’s rain can extend from fall to spring, and summer is short. South of the Equator, the seasons are flipped. When North Americans are making snow angels, South Americans are diving into the pool. If you plan to be gone for just a semester, will you maintain your happiness if you experience winter back-to-back-to-back?
Are you a surfer, climber, fisherman, hiker, or skier? You can easily pursue your hobby abroad if you study in the right location. Surf cresting waves off the coast of the Philippines or ski fresh tracks in the snowy Swiss Alps. Even if you’re not a traditional outdoor adventurer, location still matters when it comes to picking your destination. Do you have problems with seasonal allergies? Are you interested in wildlife, or do you have a paralyzing fear of snakes? Do you want to be reminded of home or reminded that you’re far from it? Whatever you like best—beach, mountains, desert, glaciers—it’s there for you to see.
Type and Size of Town
Your study abroad destination will be your home base for a few weeks, a semester, or a year. Make sure it feels like home. If you want your destination to have a bustling arts scene with museums and concerts, head to a big city. If you feel lost in urban settings, rural areas and small college towns have their benefits too. When you can’t retreat to the Starbucks at the corner of every block, you might find it easier to integrate yourself into daily life.
Even if you’re looking for a rural experience, keep in mind that some destinations might be nestled far up windy mountain roads or in the middle of the desert. If an emergency were to happen, would you be close to a hospital or an airport? If you’re leaning toward spending your time in a tiny rural village, make sure you have the language and improvisational skills to find transportation in case of an accident. Otherwise, you’re better off in a city or town with a fleet of taxis, a nearby airport, and a clinic around the corner.
Cost of Living
The dollar isn’t as strong as it once was, so you might find it difficult to live as cheaply abroad as you’d like. The cost of living in most parts of Western Europe, for example, is higher than in the United States; as of January 2019, one euro was going for 1.14 American dollars. Be sure to check to see how the destinations you are considering stack up and think about your budget in advance.
Your Academic Goals
Studying abroad is a great way to try out new electives not offered at your home university, but you should still consider the requirements for your degree. You’ll probably need to knock out a few classes in your major while you’re abroad. If it’s Jewish Studies, you won’t find many relevant classes if you choose a university in China. If you’re a business major, give preference to industrialized cities over rural village destinations. Your study abroad experience should complement your existing academic goals and invite you to examine your field of study through a global lens.
The Department of State recommends that you avoid traveling to countries plagued by unstable government, civil war, and terrorism as well as viral outbreaks (like swine flu or Zika virus). Take that advice to heart. Eliminate a potential destination from your short-list if the United States has issued a travel advisory.
Unfortunately, some cultures do not celebrate differences, or even tolerate them. Students of color, women, LGBT+ individuals, and members of religious or ethnic minorities often experience more discrimination abroad than they do at home. Hoping to avoid much of these prejudices, many students decide to travel somewhere they can be themselves safely and comfortably.
Getting the Best of Both Worlds
If you really can’t narrow down your options, you might be a good candidate for a study abroad experience that traverses multiple destinations. There are several notable programs out there in which you travel the world with a group of U.S. students. While your experience in each country is shorter and less immersive, you’ll have the unique ability to compare and contrast facets of life around the world.
- Semester at Sea, which offers transfer credits through the Colorado State University, is a well-known program in which students literally set sail for over a dozen cities in 11 different countries over the course of a semester.
- The School for International Training (SIT) offers similar programs that encourage comparative study. Through their International Honors Program, you can travel to up to four countries while studying aspects of social justice and global issues (climate change, inequality, global health, migration, peace, etc.). You might travel to Vietnam, Morocco, and Bolivia, for example, all while discussing how water, food, and energy systems affect life in each place.
Page last updated: 01/2019
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