I am doubly lucky to have been part of two study abroad programs during my time in college. This semester in India, of course, is soon coming to an end. Last year, I was in a shorter summer program in Spain and China. Both are among the best memories and experiences of my past couple years. Though they are two rather dissimilar programs, both came at the right times and were near-perfect fits for my goals at those times. For students looking for their own right fits, this post shares significant factors in and points of comparison between my two trips. It also serves as a sort of reflection on study abroad in my 2016-2017, for my 22nd and last written FEA post.
Term/Length (Summer vs. Fall, short- vs. long-term)
A big consideration before studying abroad is when to go and for how long. For some majors more than others, requirements may be really stacked so that each semester of the typical 4-year bachelor’s degree has little room for flexibility. Shorter-term programs are extra reasonable in this light, though courses abroad can fit really well into degree requirements. There are ones over winter break and spring break, but summer allows for a longer time frame while leaving the two other semesters or three other quarters.
My Spain/China program was during the summer, so it did not delay anything at all in the course of my degree. This fall semester in India did not either, but it was an elective semester from the start in a way, anyway. If I had certain school requirements to fill, I probably would have had a tougher time finding the right classes. I had little to no problem with homesickness, but for the first time going without family or friends, maybe it was for the better that the shorter program came first for me. With that said, I think I would have liked to spend more time in Spain, China, and even India. At the same time, having enough time to get a decent idea of the host city culture and form relationships while still being in school is desirable. It is worth thinking about what length of time is suitable to spend abroad, which varies individually; it could be a week or a year.
Location (more traditional vs. less traditional)
In the 2015-2016 school year, 9.2% of U.S. students (nearly 30,000) studying abroad chose to study in Spain. This made Spain the third most popular destination, behind the U.K. and Italy. The top 5 study abroad locations were in (Western and Mediterranean) Europe, and the sixth is China (3.6%, 11700 students). India ranked 15th (1.3%, 4200 students), which is not too low but is the lone South (or Middle East, Southeast or Central) Asian representative in the top 25.
The statistics are not meant to discount the most popular locations because they have lots to offer in academic and cultural learning. More traditional places may even be more reliably better equipped to or organized in hosting foreign students. Programs are academic in nature, and learning opportunities are in no shortage when in any foreign country, either. But goals in study abroad also include challenging oneself, looking to develop new perspectives, and testing personal adaptability. Less traditional places arguably offer defining moments for these in spades, in heightened form.
Last year, I stayed in Barcelona and Shanghai. Both are big cities and undeniable cultural centers, so there was always something to do and always a chance to observe outside of classes. With just a month in each, I felt like I got to see and do so much. For one, I am embarrassingly proud that I finally learned how to navigate subways in those two months. Hyderabad is a big city, too – with a population a few times higher than Barcelona’s, in fact. It is well-known in India but is less so internationally. I personally had not heard of Hyderabad and knew very little about India before coming. That sets up a different impression from the start because I definitely knew a bit about Barcelona and Shanghai (and Spain and China) before last year. It worked out both ways, but going to India felt much more open-ended.
Course (specific vs. general enrollment)
Programs can be subject-specific or general with basically as many options as the home institution. Considering this point is considering how flexible degree requirements and the associated schedule are.
My summer program was in economics, so it helped fill requisite classes for my major. It was nice to have that focus, especially as a common theme between the two countries. It also came with less doubt regarding how the classes would transfer back – cleanly agreed ahead of time as Economics of Spain in the European Union and China’s Economic Reforms. Many shorter-term study abroads are structured in this way.
Programs like SIP at the University of Hyderabad allow a combination of subjects. Being a full semester makes it possible to take more classes at once like any other regular semester, too. There were many options, and I did not find out exactly what classes were available until I was on campus. This can be ideal for filling different areas of requirements or just for taking a variety of classes if there is flexibility in scheduling.
Language (prior vs. no previous study)
One of the biggest reasons I chose to go where I did last year was because of language. It goes along with location but is not necessarily a big concern for everyone. Language classes have been a sort of constant for me since high school, though. Before I had a clue about a major or minor, this constant was a comfort. Also comforting is the could-be formulaic nature in learning a language, especially at the beginning.
When I began looking into studying abroad, the Spain/China one stood out because it was multi-location and in two seemingly wildly different places. That was part of the point, of course, in the comparative program. As great as I thought that was, I might not have been so set on it if I had not previously studied Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. Spanish was back throughout high school, and Mandarin I had been taking since I started college. I thought the chance to use these lining up was perfect. One is a big city in Europe while the other is one of the biggest cities in the world, so I knew English would be around. I also knew that Catalan is common in Barcelona and Shanghainese in Shanghai, not solely Spanish and Mandarin, but I was hopeful. And I did get to improve speaking and listening in both the languages I had studied, despite the fairly short one-month period per city. This was one of the most rewarding parts of my first study abroad.
Consistent with the positively ambiguous nature of my entire fall semester, my language goals were less definite this time. I for sure wanted to take a language, though. Given the choice between Hindi and Telugu, I ultimately chose Hindi. English and Hindi are the official languages of India, though there are other official languages by state. Telugu is the main language in Telangana, and English is a pretty safe fallback if someone did not speak Telugu. Thus, there were less occasions to use Hindi, and maybe Telugu might have been a more satisfying target. But I cannot say I regret choosing Hindi, and I think Devanagari script is neat.
A number of factors are involved in the cost of a study abroad trip. Practically, this is a huge determinant in whether or not study abroad is even feasible. Shorter programs are usually cheaper. However, it may not be when based on cost per day (for example). Also, it might add up to cost more if the term is basically an extra one in addition to the regular fall and spring semester. Prices vary by provider, as well. CIEE and AIFS both have a place in SIP at the University of Hyderabad, but they differ ever so slightly in services, focus, etc. Though not on exactly comparable, the Barcelona/Shanghai program was run by CIEE while I went with AIFS to Hyderabad. I regard both positively, but it is up to personal preference because I think one tends to have a firmer approach, for example.
All of the above points can be connected to cost, too. Expenses are directly related to location. Generally, Western European countries are more expensive, and bigger cities have higher costs of living. Less directly, everything matters because it matters in applying for financial aid. Longer terms, less traditional locations, and language study are usually favorable to most scholarship committees. That is just generally. Really, if the program is justifiable and personally significant (whether because of location, language, course, family background, or whatever else), there is a fair chance that an application will stand out.
Funding can come from home schools’ study abroad offices and existing financial aid packages. There are also outside scholarships. Two fundamental non-school ones supported me in my two adventures. These are the Gilman Scholarship and FEA, which have been very helpful and for them I am thankful. As this is my last written post, I want to express again that I am grateful and fortunate to have gotten to study abroad. My experiences in Spain, China, and India are so dear to me. I hope anyone who sincerely wants such an opportunity will find it, as well.