As soon as students begin thinking about college, study abroad becomes a consideration. The viewbooks, brochures, website, and presentations of any residential college are filled with anecdotes relaying exciting times spent during a semester abroad. Perhaps you imagine yourself posing for a photo in front of landmarks like Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, Elmina Castle, or Wat Chedi Luang. Wait, Wat Chedi Luang? Elmina Castle?
From the thousands of firsthand accounts we’ve seen, students who have been most impacted by study abroad have done so in non-traditional places. Students who report the greatest satisfaction in study abroad have found it by stepping outside their comfort zones and discovering a place most people would find unusual. These eccentric destination choices may start out as very uncomfortable, but quickly turn into a second home. Not to knock London or Paris as a great place for some students, but if you've already been there, done that, and have a t-shirt to share, then we challenge you to look further for your ideal study abroad destination.
Put aside those thoughts of London and Paris for a few minutes, and start to think about yourself more deeply. Experts suggest you should think about studying abroad in a place that you'd never plan to visit as a tourist. You'll get your chance to visit Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower later, but when you are in college, and starting to form your own view of the world, this is the time to stretch your imagination and take a bold step in an unconventional direction. Something which may, initially, make you uneasy, and is likely be viewed as crazy by your family (especially grandparents), could end up being extremely rewarding.
I mention grandparents because, for some students, looking for a place to study means looking back a generation or two and reconnecting with your family's roots. There is no doubt that studying abroad in Thailand (and seeing the iconic Wat Chedi Luang) will be easier if Thai is spoken in your childhood home. There's also little doubt that if you are of Thai decent, you'll go there later in life as a tourist. So if you are of Asian decent, consider somewhere other than Asia. If you are of European decent, consider somewhere other than Europe. If you are of African decent, consider somewhere other than Africa. If you speak a second language at home, consider studying in a country that doesn’t speak that language. Instead, push your personal limitations to get the most from study abroad because this experience is not just about going to cool places; it is about achieving individual milestones, accomplishments, and personal growth.
Strike down the stereotypes and beat the perceptions that study abroad is a folly. Pushing the limits of your comfort zone will get you and your family a clearer understanding of your personal goals driving your reasons to study abroad. Once you know why you want to study abroad, focus your location selection on your area of study, your personal passion, or a personal mission you set.
The world is constantly developing. Some places are more advanced than the U.S., and some places lag in their developmental pace. Your personal passion may be to observe, to learn, or to act. Take that passion and turn it into a mission statement for study abroad. If, for example, you are interested in healthcare, learning how things are done in one society versus another can be quite empowering, as medicine is not practiced or accepted the same way everywhere. Pre-med students may discover that a semester or summer in a foreign setting can help frame the next steps in their career. The experiences and impressions gained while overseas may have the greatest impact on their personal mission and goals.
Also remember that wealth does not assure safety while studying abroad. There is a perception that western countries with advanced economies are the safest places to study abroad, yet if you read the reviews you might change your opinions. Sometimes being different and standing out from the crowd can make you an obvious target. We see many reports about local communities and families taking the role of host very seriously. Instead of being a nameless face on the street, you are, instead, protected by all around you. For some families, a home stay is more than a way for them to make a few bucks, it is a shared commitment in your personal development.
The good news is that there are organizations that oversee this process and constantly monitor their programs to assure you get the most out of your experience abroad. Just as when you were looking for a college, your study abroad experience should challenge you, get you thinking about the future, and create new opportunities. So read the study abroad reviews, talk to alumni, talk to advisors, and push your limits! Study abroad offers a wealth of options and possibilities; don't hold back. Ready to get started? Read our study abroad guide.
Did you know you can use Noodle to find the right program for you? Check out our study abroad search. You can also continue reading about how to choose a study abroad program and find other study abroad advice from our community of experts.