How to Choose an International Program
During my time as a study abroad advisor, I was frequently asked the question, Which program is better? There are no “right” or “wrong” choices when choosing an international program*, only different outcomes and consequences. Ask these 10 questions to determine which international program is right for you.
1. Why am I traveling?
Write down every reason you can think of as to why you are interested in traveling, studying, working, or volunteering abroad. Maybe you want to see a new place, learn a new language, or know what it is like to live outside of the country. This is good, keep going.
- Are you trying to accomplish something through traveling that you cannot accomplish at home?
- Was there a particular moment, conversation, person, or idea that inspired you to pursue an international opportunity?
- What are your goals?
- Are you trying to get away from something back home?
- Which of these reasons are more important?
- Which of your motivations are healthy reasons for wanting to travel and which may be unhealthy?
2. Where do I want to go?
Research in this stage is key.
- What language is spoken?
- Do you need a visa to enter the country?
- What is the current currency and exchange rates, transportation options, weather and terrain during different seasons, etc?
- Which places are in your comfort zone and which ones will challenge you a bit more?
- How important is it that you push yourself out of your comfort zone to be challenged in this experience?
- How important is it that you find a place that will allow you to accomplish a particular task?
- Is the location you first had in mind the best fit to help you achieve the goals you have already determined are important?
3. What does it cost?
Create a budget. If you don’t have one, make one. If you don’t know how, seek out the counsel of someone who has gone on an international program or traveled. (Check out The Traveling Advisor’s Free Guide to Creating a Budget for International Travel) If the international program is a good fit in every way except for your budget, you may need to readjust your expectations of what it costs to have the experience that is right for you or identify ways to raise additional funds creatively via peer-funding, scholarships, or these other funding ideas. Remember, this is an investment with long-term rewards. If you want a big ‘return’, you need to invest time, money, and energy.
4. When is the best time to go?
- If you’re a student, what year should you study abroad to earn credits toward your degree and apply your financial aid?
- Is a summer, semester, or academic year program a better fit?
- If you are a working professional, when can you take paid or unpaid vacation time?
- Is it time to travel in between jobs or during a career change?
- Can you incorporate business into a part of your journey and leverage for additional time away from the office?
- If you are a retiree, when is a good time to travel outside of volunteer and family obligations?
5. Who will I be traveling with?
Traveling solo? Making meaningful connections through your housing choices, involvement in activities, professional networking, volunteering, etc is important. A word of caution! Don’t assume that traveling with a friend is the best option. Sometimes best friends make the worst travel buddies. Also, if your goal is to meet new people, learn a new language, or develop independence, traveling with someone may make it difficult to achieve your ultimate goals. However, if you are traveling with another person or a group, ask these questions together so that you can set expectations, address potential problems, and make plans together so that everyone feels they are a part of both the process and the outcome.
6. What level of support do I want or need?
Everyone requires a different level of support in order to feel confident to travel. Some people like to find resources and information on their own via the internet or guidebooks but most people prefer to have a personal contact to ask questions and get professional support for their journey. If you are looking at an organized international program, contact the organization and ask them what type of support they offer participants. This will vary greatly. If you have a medical condition or disability, it will be particularly important to identify an organization that prioritizes your success through actions, not just lip service!
7. Do I have any limitations or barriers?
There is a big difference between a perceived barrier and a real one. Perceived barrier = you cannot go to Japan because you do not speak Japanese. Your real barrier is fear of not speaking Japanese…yet!). A food allergy, on the other hand, may be a real barrier if you decide you want to participate on a program that only offers homestays where the family cooks for you and is not able to accommodate your food needs. You can still travel, but that particular program may not be the best choice for you.
8. Which of these categories are most important to me?
Rank questions 1-7 in order of importance. As you research your options your priorities will shift. For example, you may have ranked ‘Location’ as the most important priority and identified Italy as the goal to complete a studio art program (your motivation). Then, you found a studio art program in Ireland that was a better match for your overall goals, budget, and interests. You may still be interested in the art program in Italy, but now you have discovered you are interested in exploring other options and ‘Location’ is not the number one priority anymore. This is normal. Embrace the changes now, there are many more to come.
9. Which option is best for me right now?
Now that you have worked through the important topics to consider when traveling and ranked them in order of importance, you are in a much better position to identify which organization or program is the right fit for you. Or, you may decide that you can better craft your own experience without a pre-set program, and there are many resources to help you do so.
10. Who do I trust to share my ideas with?
Share your thoughts! Make sure that in addition to your program advisor, you speak with a trusted friend or family member who is supportive of your desire to go on an international program. They may challenge your assumptions, ask you additional questions, point you to a valuable resource, or call you out if you haven’t been completely honest with yourself in one of the above categories!
You’re ready! Take the next step and start submitting applications to your top 3 international programs.
Now voyager, sail thou forth to seek and find. | Walt Whitman