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What To Ask Yourself When Choosing a Study Abroad Program

By Emily Almaraz

September 27, 2016

There has never been a doubt in my mind that I would study abroad in college. It’s always been a matter of when and where. But with everything that college is – academics, organizations, grocery shopping, and every other possible responsibility you have as a student and now adult – it’s hard to find the mental energy to sit down and choose a program.

If the study abroad fair has once again came and gone and you still haven’t found the right study abroad or don’t think you’ll be doing one (yet), there’s more than enough time.

Start With The Right Question

As you may have already found out, almost everyone loves and gushes about their study abroad. For some it’s their first time out of the country, and even when it isn’t, it’s always ‘life-changing.’ You might have guessed this: there is no right study abroad program, only the right one for you. And getting it right will require some conversations with yourself—mostly just asking lots and lots of good questions.

For starters: What do you intend to get out of this?

For some it may be learn a new language, in which case, an immersion program in your target language’s country would make sense. For others it’s less clear. Maybe you want a couple of things. It’s okay to not to know.

I’ve realized that asking questions – especially when feeling overwhelmed – makes all the difference. Answering questions is less daunting than evaluating your program options one by one and eliminating from there. Below I’ve listed some basic questions by category that have most useful to me. They are far from exhaustive – in fact, these are only here to get you started. Figuring out which study abroad program is right for you is a matter of getting to know yourself first.

Type of Program

If you’ve ever been to a study abroad fair, you’ll know that there is an entire market for study abroad programs, which means you’ll have more options that you’ll know what do with. So before shopping around, I’d go in with the answer to these questions in my back pocket:

  • Do I want to enroll with a foreign university (as opposed to through my college)?
  • Do I want a program designed for American students?
  • Do I want a program that’s designed for both American and the host country’s students?

Academics

When speaking with your parents about studying abroad, a large part of your informal presentation will focus on the academic merit of the trip. Yes, you’ll be exposed to new cultures and grow as a person, but you also want them to know that you’ve thought about the semester hours – and what requirements your trip out of the country fulfills for your major. What to ask:

  • Do I want to take classes that complete my major’s requirements?
  • Do I want to take courses in English? Or in my host country’s language?
  • Do I want to take this as an opportunity to learn a new language?
  • Do I want to become fluent in the language I’m already studying?

Social Life

The idea of where you’re going to live, eat, workout – and who you’ll be doing all of these things with is just as important as what you’ll be studying in the classroom. What to ask:

  • Do I want to live and study in a “college town” or in a big city?
  • Do I want to live with other American students, with students from the host country, or with a host family?
  • Do I want to live on campus or can I commute?

Financials

For many of us, this is the biggest obstacle. The conversation about where the money will come from to fund your trip will involve a parent and it might not be fun. It’s hard to talk about money, especially when you believe the return on investment of a study abroad is too much to pass up. No matter how many times you tell your parents “it’s an investment!”—it still fair game to get into details of the financials. At the very least, to know you’re getting the best possible deal on your study abroad. What to ask:

  • How much can I afford to spend?
  • How much do I care about the popularity of the host country I’m interested in?
  • Is there better financial aid for a less popular program/country?
  • What will it cost for a summer study abroad versus a semester one versus a Maymester?
  • What will the cost of living in ‘X’ country compare to ‘Y’?
  • What will it cost for local transportation (bus vs. train vs. taxi vs. streetcar vs. subway)?
  • What will it cost to travel to nearby cities or countries? Is this important to me?

If You’re Still Feeling Overwhelmed

Go to your study abroad office

And request a meeting if at all possible. Having someone face to face can sometimes be more helpful than on-your-own internet research. A study abroad advisor will most likely know what programs are popular, which aren’t, and the reasons for both. They might be able to suggest resources you had no idea existed - like an obscure scholarship they just found out about or direct you to the professor who leads a faculty-led program that would be a good fit for you.

Talk to students who’ve done a study abroad program you’re interested in

Maybe you’re a freshman or sophomore who doesn’t have many friends who’ve done study abroads. Or you don’t think it’s worth the money and are thinking that you’ll have time after graduation to take that trip to France. Perhaps you’ve done the math that, yes, it is significantly cheaper to go on your own. Wherever you are on the planning process, talk to people who’ve been there. And come armed with good questions because their thought process is likely to be useful as you decide between programs. Fair warning: their excitement about their study abroad will be contagious.

Keep your parents in the loop

Because they probably have a million questions. Parents always ask the questions you wouldn’t think to. Safety might not be on your mind but it’ll be the first thing on theirs. Most importantly, parents live vicariously through their children, so it’s fun and maybe even our duty to keep them involved.

Hopefully these sets of questions are the starting point you needed to start researching programs. It can’t be overstated that self-reflection is the biggest favor you can do yourself when making any big decisions, including finding the right study abroad program.

Emily Almaraz will graduate in 2018 from The University of Texas at Austin. Emily is an art history major and wants to design dream spaces. Her favorite program is the Forté College Leadership Conference.

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