Choosing the Right Study Abroad Program for You

It’s about that time of year again, at least at UNC-Chapel Hill: time to start submitting study abroad applications for fall 2016. It’s an exciting time, but it can also be an overwhelming time. This past Friday, I volunteered at UNC’s study abroad fair to tell interested students about my experience in Seville, Spain and answer any questions. Even I, someone not even looking for a study abroad program, felt extremely overwhelmed upon entering the study abroad fair. It’s a hard decision when there are so many places you want to go. So, in making your decision, you might want to ask yourself the following questions:

1. Do you know another language or want to study another language?

This question can definitely help you narrow down where you want to go. However, keep in mind that in many cities, the people there know English. This could be good for you if you only want to speak English, but bad for you if you want to practice another language.

Also, be mindful of the other languages that might be spoken in a city you’re thinking about studying in. For example, I would not have wanted to study abroad in Barcelona to practice Spanish because the people there also speak a lot of Catalan as well as English (I’ve heard that some of them even prefer speaking English to Spanish, so that’s not good if you’re trying to practice Spanish.).

My #1 piece of advice if you do want to practice a language is to pick a program with a host family! If you’re living in an apartment with other Americans, you’re hardly going to improve in your language-speaking skills. Not to mention, you’ll miss out on truly immersing yourself into and learning from the culture, which is why I’d recommend it to you even if you’re going to an English-speaking country, although host families aren’t as common in English-speaking programs.

 2. Do you want to travel to a variety of other countries while abroad?

If your answer to this question is yes, then studying abroad in Europe is a no-brainer. Europe is the only place in the world where it’s so easy to hop on a plane or train and in just a few short hours, be in a completely different place. From Europe it’s also easy to travel to Africa and parts of Asia. The edge of Spain only lies a short one-hour ferry ride away from the coasts of Morocco.

Travelling in Europe is also much cheaper and much more reliable than travel in other countries. It’s also very easy to cross borders, which I’ve heard can be hard to do in Latin America. If you travel within the Schengen countries (basically all of Western and Central Europe, apart from the U.K., and a few other countries), you don’t even have to go through customs. It’s just like traveling within the U.S.

In the four months I was in Europe, I easily traveled around to two continents, 10 countries and 23+ cities. You can read more details about where I traveled in one of my last blog posts. And in every one of my trips, I don’t think that I had any flights lasting more than three hours.

3. How much do you want to spend?

Here’s looking at you Paris and London… In choosing where you want to study abroad, keep in mind the cost of living in certain areas vs. others. I loved living in a very cheap part of Europe because it made it much easier to travel more because I had more money to spend. Do you want to spend two euros on a beer or six? Do you want to pay a 20-pound cover to get into a club or nothing at all? Granted, the higher cost of living might be worth it to you. Just be sure to keep it in mind when choosing where to study because it could limit how much you could travel and how much you could even do within the city where you’re studying.

4. Is there a certain kind of weather that you can’t stand?

I ask this because I know that after arriving in Seville last August, I would not be able to handle living there over the summer, where they have temperatures of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit at times and don’t have air conditioning. But, in the fall, Seville was the perfect weather for me and I only had to suffer through colder temperatures when I traveled on the weekends.

5. Do you want an authentic cultural experience?

I ask this question because I think many people initially only think (and only know) about studying abroad in large cities. While large cities have incredibly things to do and are fun to visit, I would not want to study abroad in one. Just think about it in terms of the U.S. – do you think studying abroad in New York City is an authentic American college experience? No! Don’t discount a city just because you haven’t heard of it. Often times the smaller cities (which are still large) have much more charm and a more authentic culture to that country, especially since larger cities tend to be more diverse. For example, just the other day, a history TA told us not to take into account too heavily a memoir that we read from Berlin because he said that Berlin isn’t really Germany – it’s not representative of it at least.

6. Who do you want to go with?

Don’t pick a program just because your friends are picking it; rather, I’d say, don’t pick a program if your friends are picking it, unless you want the same experience you’d have at home. It’s fun to travel with friends, but if you want a unique, personal and open experience, go alone. Make new friends with the locals and with the others in your program. Don’t worry – you’ll see your friends soon enough.

7. What do you want to get out of the program?

This is really the ultimate question you’ll have to ask yourself, which encompasses many of the questions above. It’s a big decision to go abroad, and you want to make sure that you get what you hoped out of it and even more.

However, with that being said, no decision on a program is a wrong decision. A decision to study abroad is the right decision, no matter where you choose to go. Studying abroad can help you in so many ways, and surprisingly, not very many students do it. According to the National Association of Foreign Student Advisors (NAFSA), less than 1.5 percent of college students and about 10 percent of graduates study abroad, yet close to 40 percent of companies missed out on business opportunities abroad due to a lack of internationally competent employees, which isn’t the best considering that 95 percent of consumers live outside of the U.S. So take the jump and study abroad. You’ll never regret it, no matter which program you pick. You’d only regret it if you decided to skip out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Best of luck, and happy travels,

Mikala

Next Monday read about why Sevilla was the perfect study abroad choice for me.

 

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