The shelves are filled with rows of glossy magazines, the walls hung with framed pictures of architectural marvels (the Eiffel Tower and the Great Pyramids are among the most popular monuments), and the desks littered with numerous trinkets that look vaguely East Asian. Sound familiar? This description categorizes the study abroad office, whatever its particular title may be, at any number of universities across the United States. Studying abroad is no longer an opportunity offered only to wealthy or well-connected students. With the world becoming increasingly interconnected, it’s more important than ever to have a diverse and culturally informed citizenry working in (and out of) our country. As one begins to seriously contemplate the idea of going abroad, one of the earliest and trickiest questions is: where should I go?
Listed below are some methods for determining which foreign locale best suits your needs/desires. For myself personally, I wanted a country where French was spoken but where I could also get exposure to a different geographic area than Europe. I narrowed my choices down to Morocco and Madagascar, and finally decided on Morocco based on the fact that I’d also be studying Arabic (which seemed a bit more useful than Malagasy) and I hoped to learn more about the interesting mix of cultures in Morocco (Arab, European, and Amazigh — the indigenous people).
1) Language: If you’re studying a foreign language (which I recommend having as a major component of any study abroad experience; it enriches all of your interactions and gives you new appreciation for human communication), choosing a country where your language of study is spoken can often be the best decision. If you’re studying a romance language, this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to limit yourself to Europe. While I wholeheartedly recommend seeing the sites in Spain, France, Italy, etc., sometimes broadening the scope of your experience can be even more beneficial. Check out Latin America for Spanish and Portuguese, and Africa for French, Dutch, and Italian.
2) Culture: This sounds like a no-brainer, but it actually merits some discussion. If you think the culture of a country is something you can experience at Epcot or in an ethnic restaurant, think again. Culture is influenced by history, religion, language, geography – tons of things. And it’s a MAJOR component of any study abroad experience. If you’re uncomfortable not being able to shower every day, having less personal space, and being treated a bit differently, you might want to carefully consider your country of choice. Just because you like anime and manga does not necessarily mean you should go to Japan. Although I called this section “culture,” what I’m really trying to get at is the fact that you should be informed when you’re making a decision. You should know what you’re getting yourself into. There’s always going to be some culture shock, some rough days, possibly some travelers’ illnesses. Studying abroad is not a long vacation from normal classes – it’s a serious investment financially and it can be emotionally and physically stressful. Knowing more than the basic facts about your country will go a long way in helping you make the best decision.
3) Adventurous Types: Here’s the option where you find a dart, close your eyes, and throw it at a map on the wall. Some people might not have any particular language or cultural requirements when it comes to their destination, and that’s perfectly fine. If you think you can tackle whatever the road will throw your way, go for it! And if you want to visit more than one country during the program, look into regional programs your university might offer, or traveling programs like Semester at Sea. There are a variety of programs for the hungry traveler, and if a specific country isn’t your main concern these are probably worth looking into. Just make sure you do your research once you do decide on a country. There’s nothing like arriving in Argentina’s Patagonia region with nothing but your tiny bikini and a few pairs of shorts and t-shirts.