Studying Abroad: How to find the program that’s right for you

A high school study abroad student in China (Photo courtesy One World Now)(Photo courtesy One World Now)

The increasing popularity and accessibility of study abroad programs has sparked a great debate: Are these programs really worth it?

Are study abroad programs just overpriced vacations? Or are they vital skill building experiences that will make participants marketable in an ever-more global economy?

With the availability — and the cost — of these programs on the rise, publications like the New York Times and NPR have taken up the debate recently, with many taking the controversial position that students would be better off staying behind.

The truth is, the real value of studying abroad depends entirely on two things:

How committed the participant is to getting something out of the experience.

Whether or not they are properly matched with a program that is right for them.

I’ve visited and lived in a laundry list of different countries as a study abroad program participant, a program leader, and also on my own. I have had both wonderful and terrible experiences in relation to studying abroad all of which inspired me to get my MA degree in International Education. Good or bad, a trip abroad can change your life.

For me, it all started at age 16 when my mother took me along with her while she was on a one month faculty exchange in Senegal. Just getting off the plane and being in an all black country (as a black girl from Wisconsin) was well worth the airfare.

But more than that, it made me curious about the rest of the world. Without that brief glimpse into a broader world, I might not have chosen to study abroad.

My goal became to provide my program participants with amazing transformative experiences. But time has taught me that you can lead a horse to pure water, but whether or not he drinks it is up to him.

Nowadays young people go abroad starting around the eighth grade all the way through college. Even students at the poorest, most underfunded high schools have access to study abroad opportunities.

But with such a wealth of opportunities it can be difficult to select a good program. Of course there are obvious considerations like timeframes and cost, but for me the non-negotiable deal breakers come down to safety, content quality, and the re-entry process.

Safety:

A study abroad student at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate. (Photo by KatieJean97 via Flickr)

A study abroad student at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. (Photo by KatieJean97 via Flickr)

Often while I was leading information sessions about study abroad programs, I could literally see students’ minds expanding with visions of the amazing adventures they would have.

Meanwhile their parents were visibly cringing at the combination of program costs and countless unknown variables. “You want to take my baby where? Didn’t that country have a 36 year war? Don’t they have gangs there?”

No program can ever give you a 100% guarantee of safety. In fact, if they do, I would advise not studying with them because they are lying. That being said there are a few key hallmarks of safety you should look for when selecting a program.

It’s all about asking the right questions:

Is the program insured? Any reputable study abroad program should be insured. Will the program provide participants with travel insurance? If they don’t, I recommend purchasing some. It is not very expensive and totally worth it.

Has the program had any previous issues? If you are using a third-party provider, not directly affiliated with a school or academic institution do a check on the Better Business Bureau website.

Does the program have emergency contingency plans? Is the program prepared to deal with participant illness? Homesickness? Allergic reactions? Do they have staff members fluent in the language of whatever country the program is in? How many? Are they certified in CPR? Have they planned for worst-case scenarios like natural disasters or war?

How many staff members are with participants at any given time? If the answer is one and there are more than ten people on the program, the program is understaffed.

How safe are the specific areas where the program is traveling? While some countries have reputations for being “dangerous” because of volatile political climates or high crime, even within these countries there are communities that might be perfectly fine to visit. The person most qualified to assess that is usually someone from the country.

Does the program have an in-country staff? If participants are staying with home stay families, how are these families selected and vetted?

Deep breath. I ask these questions, not to scare you, but to encourage you to really know what you are getting into.

Content Quality:

High School student Reed McCoy checks the day's itinerary on a Global Visionaries study abroad program in Guatemala. (Photo by Reagan Jackson)

High School student Reed McCoy checks the day’s itinerary on a Global Visionaries study abroad program in Guatemala. (Photo by Reagan Jackson)

Once you’ve decided that this program might actually be safe, you should begin evaluating what kind of experience want to have.

Some people plan study abroads like vacations. I am not opposed to fruity drinks and I am all about the beach, but if that is the highlight of what your program has to offer, then you are not getting your money’s worth. I’m not saying that study abroad has to be a prison camp where you climb mountains and build schools from sun up to sundown. But good programs strike a healthy balance between those extremes.

It’s also important to really understand what your program is about. What is the theme? What are the goals? What are the expectations?  What are the rules? And more importantly, what do you want to get out of going abroad? Maybe you really do want to go to the beach. Your highest level of satisfaction will be achieved by matching what you want to the program that is best aligned with your interests and what you are willing to do.

Once you’ve decided what kind of experience you want to have, then make sure you’re traveling with the right people to provide that for you.

Get to know the program facilitator on a personal level before you leave the country. Programs can look amazing on paper, but the facilitator is the person who will bring it to life and who they are and how they are can really flavor your experience. Imagine navigating the back alleys of Bangkok with someone who doesn’t speak Thai and is reading directions out of a Lonely Planet guide book.

A good facilitator is someone you are comfortable with, someone who is familiar with the area you are going to and has an understanding of what can be learned there. That person should also be able to balance the itinerary with the needs of the group, meaning if half the group gets diarrhea, they need to have the common sense to cancel that four-hour hike in the mountains. Good judgment is imperative.

So is an eye for that special thing that will make your experience amazing. I have agonized over daily itineraries, just to have program participants coming back from Japan say the best part of their trip was the day we went to the All You Can Eat Cake Buffet or that time we met some street performers and had a break dancing battle at Raccoon Dog Alley. Those weren’t planned stops, but good facilitators get to know their group and tailor the extras accordingly.

Re-Entry:

Seattle students Nikki Seven, James Smith, Brenna Sullivan on a Global Visionaries study abroad program. (Photo by Reagan Jackson)

Seattle students Nikki Seven, James Smith, Brenna Sullivan on a Global Visionaries study abroad program. (Photo by Reagan Jackson)

Once the trip is over, often program participants experience reverse culture shock.

Even participants on short-term programs have talked to me about coming home after having a life changing experience and feeling like no one understands them.

The re-entry Process is a critical part of the experience. It is important to maintain community ties with the other participants on the trip. More than just forming Facebook groups, there should be opportunities for participants to come together to process their experiences with people who will understand them, and forums for participants to share their experiences with their friends and families.

The now-what step is a critical, but often overlooked part of many programs. The goal is to maximize the experiential learning through processing and self-reflection.

There are many factors to consider. But taking the time to really think it through before you study abroad will help to align you with a positive experience.

Will it be worth it? It definitely was for me.

Reagan Jackson received her BA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington and her MA in International Education from SIT Graduate Institute. She is a writer, artist, activist, and international educator. She has published three collections of poetry (God, Hair, Love and America, Love and Guatemala, and Summoning Unicorns) and a children's book (Coco LaSwish: A Fish from a Different Rainbow).

1 COMMENT

  1. Very nice article and practical for students and parents. After I studied abroad I appeased my re-entry culture shock by sharing my experiences with interested students and also worked as an adviser to foreign students in this country. I’d like to add that most colleges have plenty of opportunities to meet others peers in organizations or clubs such as Former Foreigners or Peace Corps. I’ve also made great friendships with people who grew up or served overseas in Military families and LDS missions.

Leave a Reply