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Choosing a Study Abroad Program

To cease to see the world through the eyes of a tourist and learn about another culture while learning about yourself, you first must find the right program. Start by figuring out what your needs are and what you are looking to gain from your time abroad. 

1. Length of the Program

Programs can range from two or three weeks to over a year. Roy Chung studied in Seoul, Korea for two semesters and recommends it because "living and being in a foreign culture for a long period of time gives you the opportunity to experience things that you might not have time to do in a shorter program."

But if you can't stay away from home that long, you can go for just a summer, or even for a couple of weeks. Don Flanders studied on a European Art and Architecture Tour and on a Russian Winter Wonderland tour-both 2-week programs. He went to museums and visited other attractions, then wrote a term paper about his experiences at the end of the trip. He got course credit for each of the programs. This may be a good option if it is your first time abroad.

2. Cost

Price can also be an important factor when deciding on the length of the program. But be aware that the shortest program is not always the cheapest. Lindsey Parsons, a study abroad adviser at the Univ. of Georgia, recommends a semester-abroad program because the "per-day cost of studying abroad for the summer is much higher than for a semester." Make sure to look at what is included in the price of the program-many programs have hidden costs. 

3. Location and Size

Smaller towns are usually not as accessible by rail or major roads, which can make traveling very difficult: "The one thing I did not like about staying in a small town was that it was so hard to get to a big city where most of the trains were," says Kevin McDonald, who studied in France. 

But the conveniences of living in an urban area can come at a cost. Big cities can sometimes be overwhelming and touristy. Lindsey Parsons warns students: "In a large city you will probably be treated like a tourist most places you go, making it hard to really connect with the culture." Also, there is often more crime and it is more expensive to live there. 

In big cities there are usually more museums, restaurants, theaters, and concerts-there is always something going on. But in a smaller town you can experience the culture in a more personal way, feel like a part of the community, and you get a better sense of day-to-day life.

4. Language

When the only way to communicate is in the local language, you will pick it up faster. But be careful: it can be easy to fall into the trap of only speaking English with the other students in the program. When Amanda Holmes studied in Madrid she learned that "it is best to surround yourself with international students so that you have no option but to speak the language of the country in order to communicate." 

Even if you have not studied the language, don't be afraid of a non-English speaking country. "The learning and personal development that goes on when a student has to navigate another country without knowing the language is great," says Lindsay Parsons, and you will also learn a fair amount of the language by just being surrounded by it.

5. Solo or with Friends

Going alone on a study abroad program helps you to become more self-reliant, forces you to go out and meet new people, and build up your confidence. Jill Harley, who studied in Queensland, Australia and went on her own recommends "not going with a friend because you may find yourself not branching out as much. Meeting new people is a part of studying abroad." Dr. John E. Greisberger, director of the study abroad programs at Ohio State Univ., agrees. He says that students enjoy studying alone as long as they are willing to go out of their way to meet and talk to people. Many students report that their best experience was when they traveled by themselves. 

On the other hand, it can be helpful to have someone to share all of your experiences with and who knows what you are going through. It can also be safer. Justin Fuller, who studied in Innsbruck, Austria, says that he was glad to have a friend with him because it made travel a lot easier. "When we were changing trains at night, or trying to find our way through a busy train station, I was glad to have someone to help me figure everything out."

6. Host Family or Dorm

Where you are going to live is another important consideration because it can alter your perception of a country. Living with a host family gives you one of the best chances to experience a different culture first hand. Paivi Haapanen, who studied in Quebec, said that "the family setting forced me to speak French and to learn French customs." Living with a host family can also be significantly cheaper than finding other accommodations.

Living in a dormitory, residence hall or apartment usually gives you more freedom. "Location-wise and freedom-wise it is often better in the long run," says Lori Gibbons. "You are more in control of where you go and what you do." Most universities open their dorms to foreign exchange students during the summer and offer very low rates.

Everyone has different needs. Your challenge is to figure out exactly what you are looking for. The right study abroad program will help you "to develop cross-cultural skills and greater self-confidence, improve language skills," says Lindsey Parsons. "It will allow you to learn more about the rest of the world and become less ethnocentric."


By Lara Rauba