Type of Program
Every study abroad program will be amazing, but the experience you gain differs drastically between programs. Deciding what type of program to participate in may depend on how you personally desire to improve. Consider your strengths and weaknesses and definitely consider stepping out of your comfort zone! Personally, I was looking for a challenging experience that exposed me to drastically new cultures. I wanted to improve my Spanish and looked for a culture-focused program as the complete immersion and understanding that comes from living in a Spanish-speaking country is something I cannot attain in a classroom at my home university. Other study abroad program options may include taking general education classes abroad, taking science classes abroad, or finding an internship or research program abroad. Also consider who you will be working with or taking classes with–such as taking classes with students at a university in your host country, or with students within your program from your own university. Every type of study abroad program will be an exhilarating experience as learning from the professors and students at a different university in a foreign country will offer a unique perspective and learning environment.
When researching study abroad programs, remember to take into account your living situation within that country. Program options usually range from dormitories, homestay options, and apartments of different sizes (can be either arranged by the program or self-arranged). The different types of housing will expose you to different people, different meal situations, and different opportunities. While I loved the independence that came with the apartment I stayed at in Madrid, Spain, I looked on at those that chose homestays with envy as they were fed delicious authentic home-cooked Spanish cuisine daily.
Where in the World
In choosing a city to study abroad, first consider whether you are comfortable with studying in a country that speaks a foreign language, and whether speaking the native language will be necessary to participate in the program or live in the city. Learning the native language of a foreign country can be rewarding as well as a great culturally immersive experience, but is not always necessary in large cities as English has become a universal language.
Another important factor is whether you want to study in a city that’s “off-the-beaten path,” a popular tourist destination, or somewhere in between. Both have their pros and cons and result in quite different experiences. The amount of travelers will be different, and as a result, different cities may be easier or harder to navigate. Additionally, high tourism comes with higher prices, larger crowds, and higher risks of pick-pocketing. Consider whether the city is rural or urban, the amount of nearby attractions, the country’s general cost of living, exchange rates, and general conditions, as these factors will greatly affect your stay.
While you may want to be spontaneous with your other travel plans, the location of your study abroad program may affect this. A city that is a central location to other cities within your host country, or within that continent or region (i.e. in the center of Europe or Southeast Asia), determine other travel plans for before, after, and during your program (such as weekend trips).
Time of Year
The season you study abroad may play less of a determining factor in your plans, and is largely dependent on your schedule, but it remains an important factor to be mindful of. Related to where you study abroad, what time of year you study abroad determines what season and the weather you will be experiencing in your host country. For example, if studying abroad in a country on the opposite hemisphere of the world, such as New Zealand, the seasons will be completely flipped.
Depending on how extreme the seasons are in your host country, and for how long you want to study abroad for, your experience may be different otherwise. Having lived in California my whole life, I was extremely nervous about the scorching hot summers of Madrid. While the heat rarely stopped us from exploring the city, sunburn and staying hydrated were more serious concerns than I was used to. Likewise, had my study abroad program been in the winter and in a region where it snowed, my experience would have been drastically different. The weather definitely plays a factor in any travel experience. For example, visiting Northern Europe that same summer, I was met with an unexpected need for a jacket, as this region is much rainier and cooler than Spain is in the summer.
Remember to keep your options open as you begin researching programs. Your school will most likely have a study abroad website, but don’t let this limit you. If you are a UC Berkeley student, there are programs specific to UC Berkeley students and there are programs open to all the UC schools. Some other schools may allow students from other universities as well. Additionally, most schools have on-campus study abroad offices that may also hold informational events. Consider talking to a study abroad adviser for more specifics and information, especially about different types of programs (research, language, etc.). Friends and peers that have studied abroad are great resources too, and oftentimes can give you a more honest description of the experience.
Once you set your heart on a few programs, carefully read the requirements. Some programs abroad may require a certain level of proficiency in the country’s native language, which sometimes can be satisfied by taking language classes the semester before you go abroad. The key is to think about it early and incorporate the possibility of studying abroad as you plan out your college career.
Housing is usually organized by the study abroad program (speak to an adviser if you have any questions), but you are usually required to figure out your own transportation to the host country. In general, looking for plane tickets as early as possible is advised as tickets tend to increase as your departure date approaches. Other tricks and tips about flying include flying out on Tuesdays or Wednesdays when prices are generally cheaper.
I’ve compiled my list of travel websites (tailored specifically to Europe):
- Transatlantic flights: STA Travel, Expedia, Skyscanner, Kayak (I’ve also heard of Norwegian Airlines and Iberia)
- Flights within Europe: Ryanair, Easyjet, Iberia
- Bus/Train within Europe: Eurolines, Student Agency, GoEuro, Busbud
Funding your Trip
Be sure to make a realistic budget based on your resources (financial aid, family assistance, current job, etc.), including travel costs, program fees, recreational activities, and living costs dependent on the specific region. Also consider how much you want to travel outside of your study abroad city, before and after the program as well. For example, the plane ticket to Europe or Asia is expensive, but intracontinental flights will be cheaper. For those receiving financial aid, your summer packages may change based on need and will usually be different if you are studying abroad. For this, check your study abroad office for a financial adviser within the office as they will be the most knowledgeable about this situation.
There are a variety of other resources available for students studying abroad as well. They range from research grants to essay competitions to scholarships. A huge factor that helped me fund my trip was the Gilman Scholarship. Reserved for students that are receiving the Federal Pell Grant, the Gilman Scholarship programs provides financial support to students in need. This scholarship aims to open doors for students by giving them the opportunity to study abroad and to diversify the population of students that do end up studying abroad. Depending on the length of the program and the student’s needs, recipients of this scholarship can earn up to $5000 and participate in a service project that helps inspire other students to study abroad as well. This scholarship helped me reduce financial burden on my parents and gave me the chance to experience something amazing. The time I spent studying abroad was unforgettable and I highly encourage everyone to seize the opportunity.