Why Field-Based Learning May Be Best for Your Studies Abroad

Interested in internationalizing your passions and interests? Looking for an adventure? Driven by an environmental issue or a global cause? A field-based study-abroad program may be a great option for you!

What Is Field-Based Study Abroad?

Studying abroad is widely recognized as an opportunity to enhance academic studies through hands-on, immersive experiences. Most study-abroad programs, especially semester-long ones, combine standard classroom instruction and coursework with cultural engagement (such as site visits, community activities, and extracurricular projects).

For students who are particularly interested in the immersive aspect of study abroad, field-based programs — sometimes referred to as field studies or field schools — are a great option. These highly rigorous, site-specific, and research-focused programs give students an opportunity to dig in and get their hands dirty. Field-based programs often involve students spending a significant amount of time interacting with local communities and participating in experiential learning activities outside of the classroom.

What Are Some Examples of Field-Based Study-Abroad Programs?

Field-based study-abroad programs focus on a specific topic or issue, typically pertaining to the global community or the environment. For instance, you'll find lots of programs centered on conservation and sustainability, species research, community development, and global health. Below are just a few examples of the wide variety of field-based study-abroad programs:

Organization for Tropical Studies

The Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) is a consortium of 63 national and international universities coordinated by Duke University. They offer programs — during the summer as well as the semester — that cover a range of interests and issues. For instance, one OTS program sends students to Costa Rica, where they can explore the country's flora and fauna alongside local ecologists, all while improving their Spanish-language skills.

The School of Field Studies

The School of Field Studies (SFS) offers programs in 12 countries, including Tanzania and Australia. For example, the Field Practicum in Public Health and Environment in Kenya teaches students about the links between health care and the environment, and requires students to implement their own public-health field assessment projects.

SIT Study Abroad

SIT offers single-location programs in Latin America, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, as well as comparative programs that span multiple locations. One such comparative program, Climate Change: The Politics of Food, Water, and Energy, begins with a two-week study period in San Francisco, after which students travel to Vietnam, Morrocco, and Bolivia to explore the social impact of climate change in different locations.

How Do Logistics Differ from Standard Study-Abroad Programs?

Logistics for field-based study abroad programs will vary based on the location, program length, and program provider. Most of these logistics (applications, visas, credit transfers) are very similar to any other study abroad program; others — housing, for example — can be unique to these types of programs.

In field-based study-abroad programs, students are often placed in a homestay (which means they live with a local family), rather than in apartment-style or private housing. These homestays are typically arranged and sponsored by the program, and they can be a highlight of students' experiences. Although field-based programs may seem more "rugged" than standard study-abroad programs, their providers prioritize the safety and health of all participants, and they make available the resources and support needed to ensure a positive experience for all students.

Is Field-Based Study Abroad Right for You? What to Expect?

Field-based programs are particularly well-suited for adventurous and self-motivated students who are passionate about global issues and who enjoy experiential learning. These programs are also a great option for students who are interested in obtaining graduate degrees in the future, especially in fields such as science, education, or international policy. The research component of field-based study-abroad programs may give students a taste of what advanced degree studies entail.

Field-based programs tend to involve many outdoor activities, minimal lodgings, and lots of shared space. Though these elements contribute to a fully immersive experience, they can also be challenging for some people to handle throughout the length of the program.

Be sure to do your research if you're considering a field-based program: Talk to your study-abroad adviser as well as the program coordinator to get a sense of whether field-based study abroad may be the right fit for you. Remember, it's great to stretch your comfort zone, but you should aim to choose a program format that will fit your interests and needs.

Are There Financial Aid Opportunities for Field-Based Programs?

If you're set on a field-based study-abroad program and need a little help with the cost, there are many resources you can explore.

With any type of study-abroad program, you should consider filing a FAFSA form. The official FAFSA website includes a list of all international schools that participate in the U.S. Federal Student Loan Program. You can also find information on scholarships and grants specifically for international programs on the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers (NAFSA) website.

Consult with your home university's study-abroad office to get a sense of what types of scholarships and financial aid opportunities are available to students who want to spend time overseas. You can also check out Abroad101's scholarships page to learn more about how can you fund your time abroad.

A Final Word

For students looking for a study-abroad experience that includes opportunities for cultural engagement or exploration through language-skills development, sightseeing, or social opportunities, a field-based program probably isn't the best fit. For students looking for an investigative approach to their studies and a way to engage with global issues and passions through hands-on exploration, field-based programs are a fantastic option.

Happy travels!