During my undergraduate career, one of the most exciting moments was planning and deciding where to study abroad. While some may say I went full-on nerd with the planning my semester abroad, this stage in my life really helped me see what my passion in life was: to travel and immerse myself in new cultures.
But not all study abroad experiences are equal. It doesn’t mean they’re worse or better—they’re just different. And the experience means something different for each person and changes their life in a unique way.
It can be both exciting and overwhelming. Life-changing and challenging. Here I’ll share my own experience with you and give some helpful tips to help you choose where to study abroad and decide what type of experience is right for you!
Step 1: Determine if studying abroad is right for you
The first step is to determine if you should study abroad or not. If you’re reading this post, chances are you’ve already passed this step and moved on to the next. So what are some good reasons to study abroad? Maybe your university requires it, you want the international experience, or you simply just want to (which despite what anyone says is a fantastic reason!).
In my case, I’ve always had a passion for travel and knew I wanted to study abroad. I purposely went to a university with an excellent study abroad program and started browsing the options available during my Freshman year. Also, both of my majors (Spanish and International Affairs) required at least eight weeks abroad in order to complete the degree.
So if you’ve made the decision that studying abroad is right for you, congratulations! It’s going to be one of the best experiences of your life.
Step 2: Determine why you’re studying abroad
In order to be able to choose where to study and what kind of program you need to join, it’s important to make a list of your goals. My list of goals before studying abroad looked like this:
-Improve my Spanish
-Make friends from other cultures
-Live in a place that’s not overly-touristy
-Learn about a culture different from my own
With this list, I could automatically cross off countries that weren’t Spanish-speaking from my list, as well as destinations overpopulated by tourists. There’s nothing wrong with visiting super touristy places but I knew it wasn’t what I wanted for my study abroad experience because I would be too tempted to speak in English instead of pushing myself to speak Spanish. Making a list of goals really helped me narrow down my choices and choose a place that would help me reach them.
Step 3: Decide your budget
A budget is super important when studying abroad. You’re going to be living in a new country and you probably won’t be able to work, so saving beforehand is crucial.
Many people think that studying abroad is expensive—and it definitely is, but there are options to make it more affordable. First of all, the location. Studying in Chile, I was able to travel around the country and stay in hostels for around $10 USD per night, while my friends who studied in Europe paid double or triple that.
Another thing to keep in mind is the program. Some schools have programs for the same price as tuition, so your only extra costs are spending money and transportation. You should also look into if you can use your student loans toward studying abroad and if there are scholarships available (there are A LOT of scholarships out there for study abroad. Here’s an awesome post to give you some ideas!)
Some programs offer homestays, where you live with a local family for the semester, while others provide apartments. Staying with a host family is usually cheaper because you don’t need to pay for meals or things like that, while an apartment offers more independence but is a little pricier. I stayed with a host family when I was studying in Valparaíso, Chile and it was an awesome experience. At first, I was nervous because I like my independence and my actual parents are really laid back. Before I was matched with my host family, my program sent me a survey asking what type of family I’d like to live with. They matched me really well and my host family was super great and didn’t have very many rules.
Step 4: Choose a region
Choosing a region is the first step towards choosing a specific country. For me, wanting to better my Spanish, my options were Spain or Latin America. Since I was minoring in Latin American Studies, Latin America was an obvious choice. The history and culture have always attracted me.
Look over your goals and think about your interests to help you decide in what area of the world you’d like to go. The decision could be made based on budget, academic reasons, or simply interest. Figure out what interests you, research it, and go for it!
One thing you might want to consider is safety. I say might because the media has a way of making places seem much more dangerous than they actually are. An example is that when I told people I was moving to Colombia, they looked at me like I was crazy, going on about how I was making a stupid decision moving to such a dangerous place. In the end, I feel much safer here than in many other places. Today’s Colombia is NOT the Colombia of the past or that of the media, so learn about the actual safety situation of where you’re going before you write a place off. If necessary, create a detailed powerpoint to present to your parents.
Step 5: Narrow it down to one country
One of the most difficult parts for me was choosing where to study abroad. How could I choose just one country? I first had to choose between Central America and South America. I chose South America simply because it was further away. Brazil was out of the question (unfortunately) because they don’t speak Spanish, along with small countries like Suriname. I considered Colombia, but my school didn’t have an affiliate program that went there and it was a long process to try and petition for one. For safety reasons, Venezuela wasn’t a possibility.
So my options were Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay. From here, I used the process of elimination. There were no programs for Paraguay or Uruguay and I didn’t like the few programs offered for Bolivia so I crossed those off the list. The only programs in Peru were in Lima and I wasn’t interested in studying there and Ecuador just didn’t appeal to me at the time.
So I was left with Chile and Argentina. I researched the two countries for a long time and constantly went back and forth. One of my favorite professors had lived in Chile for some time, so I went to talk to her about it. She told me that the Spanish was really challenging and it would help me improve faster, plus it’s a very beautiful and political country.
I recommend following a similar process, based on your own needs and interests, to decide on a country. Read a million blog posts and talk to your professors and study abroad advisors—they can be a HUGE help and connect you with students who have studied abroad in the countries you’re interested in.
Step 6: Narrow it down to one city
Once you have a country, choose a city! This all depends on your major and interests. For a long time, I debated between Valparaíso and Santiago. A bustling capital city versus a vibrant and culture coastal city. Santiago interested me because I’d never lived in a metropolitan city like that before and Valparaíso interested me because it’s just so beautiful and interesting.
My study abroad advisor put me in contact with another student who studied in Valparaíso, Chile the year before. I met with her and we talked for hours. She told me the pros and cons of each city, but by the end, I was convinced that Valparaíso was the perfect choice for me.
If you’re studying a major like environmental science, a more rural area might be a better choice while a city is probably ideal if you’re studying business and need to complete an internship. Since I was really just taking Spanish classes and some politics classes while I was there, it didn’t matter if I was in a big city or not.
Step 7: Choose a program
After choosing where to study abroad, the final step is to choose the program that’s right for you. Different programs offer different benefits, prices, and activities. I studied through ISA, which I think is a great option for Chile and Argentina. The office in Valparaíso was right across the street from my university and there were plenty of spaces to hang out in between classes. They were super supportive with planning trips and always available to respond to problems—even going so far as to accompany us to doctor’s appointments.
There were also a lot of activities, we went to Santiago, nearby beaches, and more. The trips are included in the program fees and are completely optional, but they were a great way to get to know places I wouldn’t have known otherwise!
Some things to take into consideration when choosing a program: price, experiences of past students, what’s included in the cost, if they offer homestays or apartments, if they offer internships or not, what types of classes they offer (i.e. classes with locals or foreigners-only classes).
Studying abroad can be both a scary and exciting experience, but it’s always worth it! Get out and see the world, experience a new culture, and allow yourself to change.
What are your tips for deciding where to study abroad?