Living and learning in a foreign country can give you experiences you'll be looking back on for years to come. If you're considering studying abroad, here are some things you may want to keep in mind as you prepare for this experience to make it the best it can be. It's a daunting endeavor--going to another country for an extended period of time--but with some planning, some common sense, and an open mind, you can have the time of your life.
FINDING YOUR PROGRAM:
Maybe the most important aspect of studying abroad happens before you leave home: finding the right program. Spending a semester or more abroad can literally be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so you want to make sure the program you pick puts you where you want to be.
- To find the right program, consider some questions. Where do you want to go? Which country? What type of environment: big school, small school, city, countryside? How long do you want to stay there? What do you want to study? What do you have to study for your major? Do you want to be with other Americans or on your own? Do you want a lot of support or a lot of independence? What can you afford? Is this program reputable and safe? Do people come back saying they were satisfied with their experience? Answer these and your own questions and find the best fit for you.
- Don't feel you need to find the answers all on your own. Most colleges have a study abroad office or advisor familiar with the study abroad process. He can be a good starting place for gathering information. You might also want to contact your academic advisor or department chair. People who are familiar with your major, your interests and the requirements of your department can be of help as you sort out your options.
ONCE YOU'RE ABROAD:
- Follow the rules to avoid problems. Another key to having a good trip, once you leave home, is staying out of trouble. The last thing any college student wants is to be the source of an international incident that gets them kicked out of the program, thrown in jail, or worse. Too many things are out of your control when you're in a foreign country; you don't want to have to contend with legal problems. So know the rules of the program, know the laws of the land, and follow them for your own safety and security. You can have a lot of fun without risking your well-being or academic future.
- Budget your time and money. Some of the best things that happen when you study abroad are unplanned and unexpected. But having those great experiences is easiest when you're not running around stressed out missing school credits or missing planes or running out of money in the middle of nowhere. Budget your time and money, taking into consideration all you want to do. In that budget, don't forget to plan for the occasional splurge or even emergency. One of the great skills you learn studying abroad is how to improvise at the spur of the moment.
- Get out of your comfort zone. Even though it's important to play by the rules and keep track of your time and money, playing it safe in every area might hamper your study abroad experience. A very important thing to do when studying abroad is to get out of your comfort zone. If you're in a foreign country, don't always travel with Americans. If you're shaky in the language, use it anyhow. If you don't dance, play sports, like art, or eat exotic food, put those tendencies aside and experience what your host environment has to offer. You don't want to put yourself in physical danger, of course; if someone suggests you bungee jump, that's your call. But when you're feeling culture shock or out of place, the best thing to do is often to jump into things and enjoy being a stranger in a strange land. And there's no way to better learn the culture than to become immersed in it.
- Look for education everywhere. Yes, you're studying abroad which means you should be doing some studying. But while you're abroad, remember how much you can learn outside the classroom from your whole experience. Take time to travel, meet locals, practice the language in real-life situations, and otherwise learn from being where you are. Inside the classroom, try to take courses which blend academics with local elements of history, art, politics, and literature. Where better to learn about a country than in the actual country? And sometimes, make a judgment call about where you will learn the most at a given time. It might be in class or it could be by having an experience. Don't get in trouble with your program or school or mess up your GPA, but don't be afraid sometimes--on occasion--to choose an out-of-class experience or activity over a lecture.