Choosing a Study Abroad Program

fork-in-the-roadThe notion of studying abroad is an exciting one, but it can also be intimidating—especially when it comes to choosing a study abroad program. As a veteran study abroad student who went through her share of overwhelming study abroad searches before finally setting off on an international semester, I thought I’d save you some time by sharing what I learned along the way.

Before you start your search…

While I had a great time during my semester abroad, there are definitely some things I wish I had considered before choosing a program. There’s no such thing as a perfect program, but these questions will help you to decide what is essential, what you’re willing to sacrifice, and what type of program is best suited to your needs.

1. Where do you want to go?

This seems like an obvious question, but it’s also an important one. Some students start their search knowing exactly where they want to study. Others are more flexible and have a few locations in mind. If you know exactly where you want to go, then mark it as your number one priority and be prepared to make sacrifices to get there. If you’re on the fence between two or three places, then pay attention to the following questions and let them guide your choice.

2. Are you looking for a language immersion program?

Your answer to this question will definitely impact your program options. If you’re looking to develop near fluency in Spanish, you’ll want to pick a program that gives you full integration into the local culture and university. If English is your only language, you’ll want to either stick to English-speaking countries or find a program designed for students who have not yet learned the local language.

3. What do you want/need to study?

As a double major, my study abroad program both helped and hurt my academic plans. While it helped me complete my French major, I fell behind on my English major. It’s important to know not only what sounds interesting to you, but also what requirements you need to fulfill by the time of your intended graduation date. Make sure the program you select offers courses that you’ll need; if it does not, then you will have to make up those courses when you return home.

4. When do you want to go?

Do you want to spend a semester abroad? An academic year? The summer? You can usually find programs designed around all possible time constraints, but be prepared for a few limitations. Many great programs are only offered during one semester, or may not be offered in the summertime.

5. What’s your budget?

How expensive are the programs that you are considering? Do any of them offer scholarships or the option of a paid internship to help with costs? Figuring out how much you can spend is an important part of deciding what program to choose. It’s also important to know that the amount you pay for the program won’t cover all of your expenses. You may still have to pay for travel, certain meals, excursions, and, of course, any shopping you do.

Types of Study Abroad Programs

Now that you have an idea of what you’re looking for, it’s time for a basic overview of the types of study abroad programs you are most likely to find during your search. Keep in mind, these are the most popular program types, but there are others as well. One type of program you like or don’t like the sound of now, may turn out to be different upon closer examination, so be open to different possibilities.

1. Exchange and Direct Enroll Programs

Exchange and direct enroll programs offer the most in-depth and complete experience to study abroad students. These programs usually involve an agreement between your university and the abroad university, either to facilitate student exchange or to allow students from each university to directly enroll in courses at their respective institutions. As a participant in one of these programs you would be a full-time student at an abroad institution and fully integrated into student life. Depending on the location and style of the program, you may live in student housing, in an apartment, or with a host family, and may take additional prescribed language courses to assist you with integration.

Programs that allow you to become a full-time student abroad have plenty of benefits. Full immersion will allow you to intimately experience the country’s culture, language, and education system, and you will most certainly meet many other students either from the host country or from other abroad programs. However, there are also challenges involved. For example, students participating in these types of programs need to be more independent during their experience. While an orientation upon arrival is the norm, you will be mostly on your own during the semester or academic year, with limited academic support from home. Culture shock is of course always a challenge, as is a potential language barrier. Also, it is important to consider credit transfer when signing up for a program such as this. If you are participating in a program through your own school this may not be a problem, but if your college or university does not offer such a program and you choose to go through another school, be sure to speak with your own school’s study abroad and academic offices about how to work out transferring credit.

Full immersion can present some big challenges, but it will also offer you the most complete study abroad experience. If you are looking to gain a very full understanding of language and/or culture and to experience the life of a real student in the host country, this type of program is probably the best for you.

2. Study Center Programs

Study center programs, unlike direct enrollment programs, do not offer complete immersion in a local university. However, they do offer many advantages to students who would like to study abroad but do not feel prepared for the level of independence, language immersion, or academic challenges that living abroad as a full-time student might present. Your school may have its own study centers abroad or partnerships with abroad study centers. A study center acts as a sort of home base for US students in a foreign country. Specialized courses are offered to help students fulfill requirements for their home institution as well as to get better acquainted with their host country. The study center may also have connections with other local universities, which would allow for students to take one or two classes there without the requirement of being a full-time student. It is typical for students participating in study center programs to live with host families, but some study centers also provide other forms of accommodation.

A study center program is an especially good option for students wishing to study abroad in a foreign country for reasons other than language study. For example, if you are an art major, you may wish to study in Italy or France without a great deal of foreign language preparation. In this case, you could find a study center program that specializes in working with students in this area. You would probably be required to take one or two language courses during the program, but your other courses would be taught in English. Keep in mind, you will be more limited when it comes to gaining a full experience of the local culture. Also, if you are living at the study center with only American students, making connections with locals will be much more difficult and you will have a more tourist-like experience than you would if living with a host family and taking a few courses at a local university. The experience that study centers provide may vary, so look around a bit before making a firm decision about whether or not this type of program is a good fit for you.

3. Travel Seminars

Travel seminars are faculty-led trips abroad, usually a one-credit course or supplement to a regular seminar. These programs last between 1-6 weeks and take place during winter, spring, or summer vacations. While they tend to be more touristic than experiential, travel seminars are a great option for students who can’t work an entire semester of study abroad into their schedule for academic or financial reasons. Travel seminars also often visit countries in which semester- or year-long programs aren’t as commonly offered, allowing you to explore a part of the world you would probably never see otherwise. This is not a good choice if you are looking to gain language fluency or cultural immersion, but it’s a fantastic opportunity if you just want to see some of the world from an academic perspective and don’t have the time or money to spend a full semester abroad.

4. Internships, Research, and Service Programs

These programs are incredibly varied, but good options, especially during the summer. An internship, research, or service position will allow you to explore your intended professional field or to participate in meaningful volunteer work while getting to know a foreign country. Such an experience could range anywhere from working in an art museum in France to teaching children in South Africa. If this sounds like an interesting option, visit your school’s study abroad office to talk about possibilities. Your college or university may have connections with certain companies or programs that would allow you to easily find the experience you’re looking for.

Clearly, whatever your reasons for wanting to study abroad and no matter what kind of experience you are looking for, there is probably an option that will be a great fit for you. Take your time looking around, and don’t forget to get in touch with students who have already participated in the programs you’re considering. They’ll be able to provide you with the most answers to your questions about what the experience is like. I hope this post has been useful to you as you begin hunting around for a program, and I wish you the best in your travels abroad!

Posted by Molly Quinn, contributing student writer, Skidmore College


Clark University Office of Study Abroad and Study Away Programs: Types (or “Models”) of Study Abroad Programs

Lornaida McCune
Author: Lornaida McCune

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