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How to Make Your Study Abroad Program Decision

Taking All the Necessary Steps to Realize Una Vita Nuova

Piazza Nettuno in Bologna, Italy
Piazza Nettuno in the great student town of Bologna, Italy, and home of one of the oldest universities in Europe, featuring a famous fountain created in 1567. Photo ©Transitions Abroad.

You might have dreamt, like me, about being in a specific place for years. Or maybe you dreamt of traveling in general, leaving for an extended period of time to see and experience all you can. Maybe the first time you ever considered studying abroad was yesterday, when a friend of a friend talked about her recent trip, or a professor suggested study abroad as a good way to earn credits fast.

The decision to study abroad came naturally to me, and far earlier than the start of college life. My dream was to travel to Italy, and I would do anything I could to make it happen. I studied Italian in high school, practicing mini-dialogues, and imagined having them in some unidentified Italian city. As I slowly learned the language my desire to go only continued to grow. I knew that studying abroad was the best option.

Toward the end of my freshman year of college I decided to make this goal a reality. Lost as to how to start the process, I went to a study abroad fair offered by my university. At every booth I felt simultaneously more excited about the possibilities and more overwhelmed by the number of options.

Students in Bologna, Italy between University classes
Students in Bologna, Italy hanging out on one of the many squares of that great university town. Photo ©Transitions Abroad.

Whatever the reason you’ve decided to study abroad, the leap from deciding to do it, to then finding out exactly how to do so, can be overwhelming for many students. Only after returning from my educational experience and starting to work as a peer advisor in my university’s study abroad office did I begin to grasp the richness of all the resources and support actually available to help students plan their time abroad.

As a peer advisor I answered students' questions regarding their many options. I advised how each option fit in with their overall academic goals. After helping hundreds of students from my college choose and plan their study abroad experience, I’ve found a method by which to tackle the overwhelming task of narrowing down the hundreds of study, work, or volunteer options available to students and then to choose the program of their dreams.

1) Start with a Focus: Location, Study, or Time of Year

Often students came to me for general information, but didn’t have anything specific in mind. That’s OK! I always suggest they start by deciding

  • the location of the desired program
  • the subject they want or need to study
  • the time of year and duration of the program

I’ve never met anyone who didn’t have some preference for at least one of those three points of focus. Any one focus serves as a great starting point. Try to choose one as an absolute “must-have,” as it will help you cut from your shortlist some of the many study abroad providers that don’t offer what you need.

My life-long dream was to go to Italy to learn the language, so for me the location of any program was the most important. Based on my previous academic courses I knew any program absolutely had to offer advanced classes as well. I ultimately chose an intensive language program, but from the beginning was open to taking other classes as well in order to explore other subjects. Finally, I chose the time period since my university was still based on a quarter system. The long fall break allowed me to choose a semester program.

I found a program that offered what I wanted with regard to all three primary factors. More often, however, it happens that not every one of these key factors can be found in one study abroad program. Nevertheless, in my experience, if you focus on the one key “must-have” factor, and are flexible with the others, you will find the program that works out best.

2) Research: Make the Best Use of Your School's Study Abroad Resources

Once you’ve decided upon your ultimate goals (location, time, or academic) it is time to research all of your options. Do search online through the many commercial database sites, read what others have done via first-hand reports, reviews, and informative blogs, ask friends who have study abroad experience, speak to program alumni, but be absolutely sure to also fully utilize your college’s or university's extensive resources.

A student can study abroad with a specific program offered only for certain majors—with a program through the university or through one of the many third-party program providers. Study abroad program providers are not necessarily better than others—though some clearly have better academic reputations and track records—since so much depends on your particular needs and wishes. Often, there are differences in the way credits are accepted and the organization with whom you study abroad. Obviously, if you study via a program through your school, you will be studying predominately with students from your own school, whereas if you choose a third-party program the students will likely come from throughout the United States—or perhaps even from countries across the world.

In my case a third-party program was the only option because my school did not offer an option providing advanced Italian language classes. To find my program I went to a school sponsored study abroad fair and picked up a catalogue from every booth that offered Italy as an option. Pouring over ever pamphlet I took home from that fair, I made lists, weighed advantages and disadvantages, and filled out forms.

My case was different from most students because I chose the program on my own. Apart from this one fair, I was both the initial and final decision maker. However this is definitely not the only way to seek out a study abroad program. Though it worked out for me, if I had known about my school’s study abroad office I could have talked with the peer advisors and received far more support through the whole selection process. Most universities and colleges can and do provide detailed information on options both within and outside the institution. Do not neglect to speak extensively to your study abroad advisor, who is likely very well versed on all such options. If they do not have a ready answer, study abroad advisors can ask any questions you may have through their peers via private internal message boards and organizations such as NAFSA.

3) Make a List: Compare Every Key Factor

Obviously there are other factors to consider besides location, the time period or duration desired, and academics that go into deciding the study abroad program you ultimately choose. The best way to include these in your decision making process is to simply list them out. Though I knew the three key factors for my study abroad decision were pretty much met, that doesn’t mean I knew in which city in Italy I wanted to live, the type of living situation to select (dorms, apartments, homestays), or the extra amenities offered by each program that would prove important to me.

So I did what I usually do—I made a list.

I came back to my dorm from that first study abroad fair with over 30 catalogues advertising marvelous study abroad experiences in Italy. I spread them out on my dorm room floor and started writing: title, exact location, price, type of housing, academic courses available, and then any fun extras that caught my eye. There were some that I could immediately eliminate, helping narrow options faster.

  • programs that didn’t offer advanced Italian
  • programs that were significantly overpriced
  • programs that didn’t offer feasible options for the semester chosen

Eventually, one program clearly stood out. Once I had decided upon the program, the dream was transformed into reality. I was able to apply early enough to get an "early bird special" on tuition, to apply for scholarships, and to prepare financially, academically, and psychologically for the coming educational journey. Now it was possible to pass the entire summer lost in 24/7 daydreams of life in Italy that coming fall. All the initial steps to an exciting new adventure, "una vita nuova," had now been taken and it was possible to move from anticipation towards the realization of the dream.

Students in Bologna, Italy relaxing
Students in Bologna, Italy hanging out on yet another of the many squares. Photo ©Transitions Abroad.
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