A lot of variables go into choosing the right study abroad program for you. Here are some things you should think about before studying abroad. Some things might seem obvious but taking a minute to think about them might effect the type of experience you will have.
Scholarships & Cost: Abroad Funding
The thing that students have to think about the most when considering study abroad is the money.
- I would choose a place in the world that people don’t normally visit and with a great exchange rate. There is more funding to go to places that are less typical for study abroad students. These countries tend to be in the developing world. These countries also make living expenses very affordable.
- Choose a program that most closely reflects your goals, your major or academic interests, or your professional goals. It easier and more authentic to write scholarship essays over these topics than to say that you just really want to run with the bulls in Spain – can I have money please?
Side note – more on finding your authentic voice: I found ways to weaved my personal story into my scholarships essays to make a convincing argument about why I choose the abroad program that I did. I’m a double major in International Relations and Sociology with a minor in Latin American Studies. The United States relationship with Mexico is extremely important in terms of the economy, trade and national security. Growing up in Texas, bordering northern Mexico makes the country and cultural connections 10X more relevant to my life. I’m Mexican American – that makes Mexico, cultural, linguistically and historically 100X more significant to my life. Understanding all of these things help me cultivate my own narrative of linguistic identity that was taken from my family through generations of assimilation. I studied in Mexico to regain a sense of cultural identity that has been white-washed from the collective memory of many Mexican-American families through ethnic oppression. Not only that, the region is of important significance to my field of study in international relations and diplomacy given the amount of trade openness we have advocated and migration patterns. Finally, in the future I hope to be a leader with great cross-cultural competence able to live and work abroad in my professional future. All of these reasons helped me tell a story about who I am and why my abroad program was important to my life. Try looking for these connections in your life, in your coursework and in how study abroad helps your future goals.
- Search and research scholarships. I found out about a lot of the scholarships I applied for through my study abroad advising office and at study abroad fairs. Talking to my study abroad advisor on what the application and selection process is like and how I can seem more competitive really made a difference in my essay writing. Search high and low for a lot of scholarships and research their organizations goals for funding the scholarship. This makes it easier to cultivate an essay that fits their vision and your own. Reframe these essays in your mind. You are writing to convince a panel of people you have never met to INVEST in your brainpower and potential.
- Budget. Get a budget sheet. Keep an excel document current of what money you have from scholarships, loans and from personal savings. Don’t get carried away by the excellent exchange rate and forget you want to eat more than Ramen Noodles when you get back to the U.S.
Language: English-only, full linguistic immersion or mixed?
I would recommend full foreign language immersion programs. Many students worry that they will not being able to handle it but that is exactly what pushes you out of your comfort zone. It’s a great feeling to start out the underdog in a language and see what great results you will have after so many months living abroad. Also, since IFSA programs are with other US students, you will most likely have the opportunity to speak English with them on group trips.
Program size: 50 or 7 students?
Summer 2015 I went on a Maymester trip through UT-Austin to Beijing, China. This program was led and taught by two UT professors and graduate students. In order to make the month in China cost-effective, there were 50+ students and faculty that went on the trip. It was an amazing experience and I got a fantastic chance to bond and meet more people from my alma mater. However, there were various challenges that arise when traveling in a large homogenous group of Americans. One of these challenges was not getting enough time or space to practice Chinese. Very few of us studied Chinese, but there was always a friend in the group who spoke better than all of us and would feel the need order dinner for everyone. It was easy to rely on him, but that didn’t leave enough time or spaces for you to practice your own Chinese. Also traveling through the Beijing subway system in a large crowd is VERY DIFFICULT.
It was very interesting comparing my Maymester in China to that of my fall semester in Merida. The Mexico program had a total of 7 students from all over the U.S. (although two were from Los Angeles and two were from Washington, D.C. – I’m seeing some need for better recruitment efforts in others parts of the nation). The small group made things more intimate – for better or worse. It was difficult to avoid people you didn’t get along with in such a small program.
Housing: Second Mom vs. Roommate
In Beijing, we stayed in double-occupancy dorms. It was a lot of fun and convenient to always be near someone you knew and trusted. Coming home after going out was always easier since everyone lived in the same place and there was a lot of time for bonding.
However, that program was very insular to UT students. If your goal is to learn another language – well – the best option is to live in a home stay. Ask for the most talkative host mom who loves to cook. Ask her about your opinions, stories, what growing up was like, when she got married, etc. Your host family is a wealth of knowledge. Every chat over coffee in the morning or at night is a learning experience. I left Merida with a very heavy heart when I had to leave, my host mom, Mama Rebeca. Besides my program director and a few friends, my main reason to return to Merida, would be for her. Learning about her insights and knowledge through our conversations, not only made me better at Spanish, they gave me a relationship that I will cherish forever.
I had a headache and cried after the first day of class. I didn’t know anything any of my professors were saying. Classes were two hours long each. Imagine not knowing anything that is going on for two hours. Then go to another class for two hours and not know anything there either. That was four whole hours of feeling like a total dummy and lost. However, this experience was important for me. It broke down an identity I had been building for myself all my life as the “intelligent-good-student”. I would be willing to bet it’s in 60% of all university students. We have been taught to base our self-value on the numerical evaluations you get from professors and the nods of parental approval. When your main source of validation is in this form, it’s like a shock to the system when you suddenly feel so lost in a space that you once excelled. That is a shock that not everyone can handle. I thought about my old college roommate who suffered from anxiety a lot during this trip. I wondered if she could handle the mental stress associated with being totally lost in another language or country. I would not suggest that you let it hold you back. Let me repeat. I would not suggest that your stress levels or anxiety hold you back from studying abroad. Just know you might need to mentally prepare a little more.