Study Abroad Series – Part I: Choosing a Location

Studying abroad is a big, fantastic, life-changing decision. Kudos to you for making the choice to do it, but now you’ve got a question to answer for yourself: where will I go?

During my junior year of college, I left my little North Carolina university for a semester as an exchange student at a university in Singapore, where I knew no one, about as far across the globe as I could possibly go. Choosing such an unfamiliar location was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, but it wasn’t the easiest.

Some people, like me, are all over the map with potential locations and take a little time to choose the right place. I’ve compiled a list of 10 questions that I consider important to ask about each potential location when making the decision on where you’ll spend the next mini chapter of your life:

1. What is my goal? What do I want to get out of this experience?

Do you want to learn a language or discover new cultures? Escape your comfort zone? Explore incredible nightlife? Meet new people, or remain with current classmates/close friends? Volunteer? Travel easily? While the questions below will guide you in determining the program that meets your academic, social, travel and financial needs, answering them is no use without first having an idea of what you truly want to gain from your experience, and how far out of your comfort zone you’d like to go.

2. What are the potential host countries’ official language(s)?

Do you speak it/them? Do the universities or programs you’re considering offer classes in English, or only the host language? Can you enroll in language lessons?

3. How  are the potential host countries’ political climate?

Is the country and its region fairly stable and safe, particularly for people of your nationality? People are people no matter where you go, and no matter the situation. Danger is not alwaysas imminent as the media likes us to believe (don’t tell your parents I said that). However, safety is vital, political climates can change quickly, and even if they don’t necessarily affect safety, they can affect your ability to do things such as travel, stay out late, etc. The UN and your country’s embassy sites are informative in these situations.  

4. How are the social dynamics?

Is the country LGBTQIA friendly? Are gender roles significantly different there than in your home country? Is it safe and respectful to openly practice your religion there? How are people from  your country generally treated? Is partying and/or drinking normal or frowned upon?

5. What about cost of living?

Are you funding the experience yourself or with help? How much can you spend on it? Are scholarships available? Check out factors like public transportation, food and drink, leisure and cultural, and rent costs. It may actually be very possible to live significantly more cheaply as a student than you’d expect. (While Singapore’s cost of living is very high, research showed me it was fairly simple to keep my costs low using student housing, public transit, groceries, duty-free stores and on-campus food canteens.)

6. What amenities are available?

Will you be using toilets or holes in the ground? Is running water available for showers, laundry etc.? WiFi? What, if any, western-style amenities are you willing to forego?

7. What about food and drinks?

What is the local diet? (Noodles, glutinous sticky rice or Indian and Malaysian breads were in almost every meal I ate in Singapore – it would have been difficult were I gluten free.) Know how well your allergies will be accommodated and whether you’re willing to try unfamiliar meats, veggies and more. How available is clean water? You’ll almost always be able to find bottled and clean options, particularly if studying through a university or established program, but it’s good to at least have an idea how easily you can do that.

8. How’s the weather?

Know your potential locations’ climates, and how important weather is to you. (A friend of mine considered study only in Scandinavian nations because he absolutely loves the cold.)

9. How easily can I travel?

Seeing the world is a big reason many of us study abroad. Can you take buses and trains inexpensively for weekend trips? What is your proximity to other destinations? What budget airlines travel through your location and region?

10. CULTURE?!

Were you wondering if I was ever going to list this one? It felt like a no-brainer, so I almost didn’t. If you don’t have one standout culture that interests you, ask yourself other questions. Do you love the study of religion? Interested in architecture? History? Art? Fashion? Choose a location rich in the things that pique your curiosity and interest.

Tips:

  • Reach out to people who studied in your program: your university will often be able to connect you – just ask. I did this and it gave me lots of insider tips. Most of us love talking about our study abroad experiences, plus, we can tell you things the websites and advisors won’t.
  • ProCon it: a list of potential goods and bads can help you organize your thoughts if you’re really struggling to figure out where you want to be.
  • Don’t freak out: you will have a life-changing experience if you let yourself. The location will affect how your life is changed, and in what ways, but it’s very hard to go wrong in that department.

Study abroad is fun, mind-opening and challenging, and your decision to do it is the most important one! So enjoy the decision making process; put thought into it, but don’t over-analyze. Listen to your heart, and you’ll end up in the right place for you.

Next week, I’ll cover the important topic of financing a study abroad trip.

What suggestions do you have for choosing a study abroad location? Comment below!

Image: Dominik S., Flickr

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