Exactly three years ago, I was having the time of my life in Europe. It was the summer before my senior year of college, and I had embarked on a short-term study abroad program focused on international events and festivals in London, Paris and Rome.
Rereading that paragraph, Post-Grad Val is incredibly jealous of College Val right now.
Studying abroad was an amazing experience, and my only regret was not doing it sooner and for a longer period of time. Once you graduate from college and begin working in the real world, finding time and funds for travel can be a lot more difficult, and you’ll find yourself wishing you followed your wanderlust when you still had the time and scholarships.
If you are currently in college and have a healthy thirst for adventure, you’ve probably already added studying abroad to your university bucket list. After all, it’s a great opportunity to travel the world and immerse yourself in a culture that may be different from your own!
For those considering studying abroad in college, check out my fifteen tips for choosing the right program and making the most of your experience.
The Freshman 15: Tips for Studying Abroad
1. Talk to friends and classmates who have already been there.
One great thing about college is that you’ll likely cross paths with people who are either: a) well-traveled, b) from another country, or c) all of the above. Because of this, if you’re interested in participating in a language immersion program in Spain this summer, it’s likely that you already know someone who has been to Spain or participated in this type of program. Talk to those people and ask them questions about what to expect and how their experiences were. Chances are, they can give you a lot of information that you won’t read in the program description or travel guide book. If you can, try to get as much information as possible from a peer’s point of view.
2. Evaluate your needs.
Before signing on to a particular program, think about what you’re looking for. Can you commit to a semester-long program, or would you rather do something shorter term? Do you want to receive class credit? Do you need a program that will fulfill an internship requirement? Ask yourself these questions ahead of time to help pinpoint the right program for you.
3. Consider the costs.
Your program description might include a set cost, but does that cost include airfare, lodging, travel within the country, or food? Is the program part of a university course? Will you be paying tuition as well? Factor in all of these possible expenses when deciding if the program fits your budget.
4. Look at other colleges and universities in your state for options.
If your university doesn’t offer a program that interests you, another one might. Check the study abroad websites for other colleges in your state to see what programs they have and if the credits can be easily transferred to your school.
5. Seek out scholarships.
Many universities offer study abroad scholarships for those who seek them. The trouble is, many students don’t realize that these scholarships are out there! Through a little research on my own, I was able to secure a small study abroad scholarship through one of the departments on campus. All you have to do is apply… worst case, you’re no worse off than when you started!
6. Consider a program that relates to your major or career goals.
Studying abroad is an awesome travel experience, but don’t forget that a key part of studying abroad is “studying.” This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be stuck in a classroom all day, but keep in mind that the study abroad experience should be educational. For the amount of money you’ll be shelling out, you probably want to look into programs that will either be applicable to your degree program (or grad school goals) in some way or that will make you more marketable in the workforce.
7. Research the country and its culture ahead of time.
It’s important to have some knowledge of the history and culture of the place where you will be living for the next few weeks or months. Not only will this help you to determine whether or not this program is the right choice for you, but it will also be helpful information for you once you arrive. Have a basic awareness of the country’s current events, its famous dishes and its customs.
8. Learn the language.
Do I expect you to become fluent in French by the time you arrive at the De Gaulle airport? No. However, it’s important to learn some of the basics — hello, goodbye, please and thank you are a great place to start. My French is atrocious (I’m much more fluent in Spanish, but my French accent is only passable if I mumble), but every day, I made sure to say a cheerful “Bon jour” and “Au revoir!” to the kind staff members at the hotel where we stayed in Paris. Attempting to use the country’s native language is a sign of respect, and it makes you more of a gracious guest. Of course, some programs do require proficiency in the country’s language, so be aware of that when you compare programs.
9. Get to know your program administrator.
Contact the faculty person in charge of the program before signing up with any questions you may have. This person has likely been through the program before, and he or she will be able to help guide you through the process or help you determine if the program is right for you.
10. Figure out your mode of communication.
This was something I neglected to do prior to my study abroad program, and it was a major source of stress for me. (It was also before I had an iPhone, so I couldn’t rely on WiFi and iMessage like the rest of my friends.) Talk to your family and figure out how you’ll communicate overseas throughout the program. Through email? International SIM Card? Skype? Determine the best mode of communication for you and your family, and figure out how you’ll get in touch in case of an emergency.
11. City dwellers: don’t forget about transportation!
During my study abroad trip, I had metro passes for each of the three major cities I visited, and this was a huge weight off my shoulders! This allowed me unlimited travel throughout those cities during a set period of time, and it was definitely worthwhile for me. If you’re staying in one city for long, consider investing in metro passes as well. It will make life a lot easier.
12. Call your credit card company beforehand.
As a financial services professional, I’d be crazy not to mention this one. Make sure your credit card companies are aware of when you will be out of the country so that they don’t freeze your accounts while you’re away! I made the mistake of booking Versailles tickets online while I was still in the states, and found that my account was frozen almost immediately after for suspected credit card theft. Make sure your financial institutions are aware of your whereabouts to avoid any mishaps once you leave the country – it will be a lot harder to solve these problems away from home!
13. Have an open mind.
Study abroad is the perfect time to experience things for the first time. Order a meal you wouldn’t normally try, explore the city’s cultural centers and historical sites, and get out of your comfort zone! Immerse yourself in the culture. After all, when will you get another chance to do so?
14. Document everything!
Whenever I travel, I cannot be found without my trusty digital camera. During my study abroad trip, as well as during a separate trip to Israel a few months prior, I took pictures of everything! At night, I used a notebook to keep track of what I had photographed, as well as to journal my experiences and feelings thus far. I also blogged a bit during my study abroad trip (see here, here and here). Remember to take tons of pictures, and feel free to blog about your experiences as well! Years later, I still enjoy looking back at those photos, journals and blog entries to relive those amazing trips.
15. Believe in yourself.
I know this sounds cheesy, but bear with me! While I loved my study abroad experience, one of my biggest regrets in college was not taking a summer-long internship opportunity in London. The main reason I didn’t fully pursue that program was because I feared I wouldn’t be able to get around the city myself and I doubted my ability to navigate. When I finally did visit London for the first time, I learned how to use the metro very quickly, and immediately regretted my decision not to participate in an internship there. Whatever doubts are holding you back from a program, cast them aside and just go!
What questions do you have about studying abroad? Any tips or resources? Share yours in the comments section below!