Weighing Your Options
Adapted from Getting the Most from Study Abroad
There are a few things you should think about before deciding where and when you’ll study abroad. The first question to ask yourself is whether you should study abroad at all. While it can be a great experience, it’s not right for everyone.
Once you do decide to go, carefully consider where and for how long. You may have been dreaming about sunbathing along the French Riviera all your life, but France might not be the best place for you to study abroad for a semester or two.
Research your options, get some advice, and try not to let your excitement and anticipation overshadow all of your rational judgment.
» Figure Out What You Want
To study abroad or not—that is the first question. And you should ask it whether you’ve been dreaming about studying abroad for years or you have adamantly declared that you’d never even consider it.
If you do want to study abroad, then think about why. Is it because you’re curious about another culture, you like to travel, you crave adventure, you love meeting new people, you want to learn about the world, you want to stretch yourself and see what happens, or you just want to try something new? Or is it because you’re unhappy with your life at college, you’re unhappy with your life at home, you don’t have any friends, you don’t fit in, you’re not learning anything, or you’re just miserable in general?
Try to separate the positive reasons from the negative ones. Study abroad should be something that you embrace and jump into wholeheartedly because you want to do it and because you want to learn and grow from it. Don’t do it because you’re running away from something. Chances are, the something you’re running from will only get worse if you don’t deal with it, and it’ll probably still be there when you get back.
On a more practical level, how do you feel when you think about studying abroad? If you get giddy and adrenaline-rushed and all-around-excited, it’s probably a good thing for you to do. Any other reaction should make you do some serious thinking before you sign any forms.
If you’re excited to study abroad but feel nervous at the same time, try to think through your apprehensions and see if you’re up for overcoming them. Self-doubt and fear happen. If you’re nervous about not making friends or not fitting into the culture—or anything at all along those lines—realize that this is natural and that 99 percent of the study abroad students who come back glowing had similar fears before they left. If they can make it work, so can you.
Even if you hate lists, it might be helpful to make one as you think about studying abroad. Write down your reasons for wanting to go and those for not, and try to figure out which are more convincing. Once you think through your own desires and apprehensions, you’ll have a good idea of what you should do. Trust your instincts.
» Make Appointments with Advisors
When you think you’re ready for a more personal discussion about study abroad, make appointments with your Academic Advisor and a Study Abroad Advisor.
Make sure that you leave yourself enough time to get all the information you need. If you’re thinking of studying abroad during your junior year, you should begin looking in the middle of your sophomore year at the very latest.
Keep in mind that there are generally two types of study abroad programs: Those that are sponsored and perhaps even run by Ole Miss and those that are run by other universities and accredited by Ole Miss.
The Study Abroad Office can give you lots of individual program information: Host countries and universities, lengths, costs, and any unique features, such as special scholarships. While you’ll probably go in with an idea of where you want to study, keep your options open and really be sure to explore possibilities with your Academic Advisor and your Study Abroad Advisor. You never know what might pique your interest.
The Study Abroad Office can also hook you up with former study abroaders, and they’re definitely worth talking to since they can give you the helpful advice that official program descriptions can’t. Some might be current students at your school or recent alumni, and some might be from other universities. Ask your Study Abroad Advisor for a few email addresses or phone numbers and contact them—you won’t regret it.
» Talk to Your Friends
Chances are, some of your friends are either thinking about studying abroad or they’ve already done it. Talk to them. No one will be more brutally honest than your friends, and brutal honesty is what you’re after. Ask those who’ve studied abroad every possible question that you have, however silly you think it is. Worried about where your laundry will get done? Ask. Speak not a word of Spanish but dying to study in Spain? Ask if you could pull it off and at what expense.
Avoid choosing a certain program just because your friends do. Sure, if you have an old friend to hang out with whenever you’re lonely, you’ll feel a bit more comfortable, but you also won’t take the leap and call those nice local students that you talk with every day after class. If you hit the town with your American buddies every weekend, you’ll never follow your housemate to a reading by one of the city’s most infamous underground poets. Fitting into a new culture isn’t easy and, as comforting as it might be to have your friends nearby, you should think long and hard about how it will affect your ability and desire to immerse yourself into a new culture.
Don’t assume that your friends will be offended if you choose to navigate your own study abroad course. Some might be, but some might be relieved. Perhaps they’ve been having the same concerns as you but haven’t found a way to talk to you about them. Whatever you do, make sure you’re clear with your friends about why you’re making the choices you’re making.
» Choose Your Host Country
At Ole Miss, you can choose from a wide array of countries. The most frequented hotspots are Western Europe and South America, although locations throughout Asia and the Asian Pacific get a good number of visits as well.
Some lucky students have known where they wanted to study abroad since birth. Whether they have ancestors from a certain area or have just fallen in love with the idea of a particular country, the decision seems to be an easy one. For those of you who haven’t been irreversibly inspired in a certain direction, there are few criteria to consider.
One is foreign language and your desire or hesitation to go to a country where you’ll have to speak it. If you’ve studied French for years and want to improve it, consider France, Belgium, Switzerland, or a French-speaking nation in Africa such as the Ivory Coast. Talk to a few students and professors in the Modern Language Department and see what programs they recommend. If you’re not up on your language skills, you can study abroad somewhere that is primarily English speaking, such as the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, or New Zealand.
Another way to choose your study abroad program is to ask yourself what cultures fascinate you. Is there something about millennia-old Japanese traditions that appeals to you? Do rainforest sustainability issues make your pulse increase? Think about what intrigues you and find out where you can learn about it and be part of it.
Don’t forget that another perfectly legitimate way to choose a country is to think of a place you know absolutely nothing about, a place where you know no one and would have absolutely no reason to go in your everyday life. In many ways, such places are ideal for study abroad. When else in your life can you spend months in a random country living and experiencing and learning? It’s a great opportunity to do something adventurous, so don’t limit your options. This is one situation where the question “why” can easily be replaced by the question “why not?”
In making your decision, make sure to keep an eye on world politics and travel advisory warnings. You should know exactly what you’re getting yourself into.
» Think About Your Timeframe
Study abroad programs run in many timeframes. Which is right for you?
Your choice depends on, first, how adventurous you want to be and, second, how long you’re willing to leave behind whatever it is that you’re leaving behind. If you have lots of friends you can’t live without, leadership in clubs or activities, a blossoming academic career full of various requirements you can’t fulfill abroad, or a special someone you can’t stand to be away from for more than a week, a shorter timeframe might be best.
There are good arguments for spending a full year abroad. Getting adjusted to your new culture can take a while, and it can be a shame to leave once you’ve just settled in at the end of the first semester. For many students who’ve done a full-year program, the second semester is often more comfortable and rewarding than the first.
Remember that if you spend a year abroad, you may be able to come home and visit your family and friends during academic breaks—or they can come and visit you. If you’re close enough to home and your friends can afford the ticket, you might even end up having more visitors than you wanted.
Your future plans might also influence your decision. If you’re interested in taking the GRE, LSAT, MCAT, or any other grad-school standardized tests, make sure that your travel plans allow for enough preparation time: Exams and jetlag don’t mix very well. Also, check with Career Services so you can schedule your time around important recruiting events for summer or post-graduation jobs.
If you’re not sure how much time to spend abroad, some programs will let you go for one semester and sign up for a second while you’re there. This usually involves a good deal of red tape, but the option does exist. Cutting a year program in half is also something you could do, but consequences could involve losing some academic credit and some of your deposit. Talk to a Study Abroad Advisor and try to make the best choice for your individual circumstances.
If you decide to go for one semester, give some thought to whether the fall or spring semester will work best for you—and the season. You might enjoy your time less if you go during extreme cold/heat or monsoon season.
As you ponder your choices, try to figure out what’s best for you rather than what someone else seems to think is right. If going for a full year seems too long and intimidating, don’t force yourself to do it. Think about your options—the pros and cons of each—and make a decision you’re comfortable with.
» Choose the Best Program
Once you have a moderately small list of countries where you’re considering studying abroad, you’ll have to choose a particular program. Take a look at all the programs your countries have to offer and make sure to do your research and get some advice from your Academic Advisor or a Study Abroad Advisor: A program might have a nice glossy brochure with wonderful descriptions, but the reality could be quite different.
If possible, get your hands on course catalogues and other relevant materials from the programs you’re considering. If they’re not available in the Study Abroad Office, you can usually request them by phone or on the program’s Web site. Look at international universities just as you looked at colleges when you were in high school:
- Is the school close to a major city or is it a rural campus?
- What kind of students does the school attract?
- Does the school offer extracurricular and non-academic programs you like?
- Are the facilities in good shape?
- Are there courses and professors that look interesting?
- Will you be able to take classes with local students or only study abroad students? (If at all possible, you should aim to take at least a few classes with local students—there’s no better way to make friends.)
- What type of housing does the program make available for study abroad students? (The more choices, the better, and you should aim for one that offers a homestay—it’s definitely an option you want to consider.)
- Also check the size of the study abroad program at each university and where most of the study abroad students tend to come from. While it’s a good idea to choose a school that has experience dealing with international students, it’s probably wise to avoid programs flooded with other Americans.
» Don’t Ignore Your Parents
Talk with your parents about what you’re thinking and why you’re doing what you’re doing. They need to feel like they’re part of your decision process, and they’ll appreciate your openness. Assure them that you’re going through an accredited program that many other students have gone on before, you’re dealing with professionals, you’re doing your research, you’ll be very careful, and you’ll email or call regularly.
Your parents can and will offer advice. Ask them for help if you like, or do it all yourself, but keep them updated regardless. Your goal here is to reassure them that you’re responsible, on top of things, and can handle the challenges that you’ll face. At the same time, keep an ear out for useful advice—it comes along more often than you might expect.