When deciding where to study abroad, consider the saying Robert Frost famously wrote, “Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
Deciding where you would like to study abroad is one of the largest hurdles that you will face when thinking about your international education opportunities and often becomes so overwhelming that it is easier to go with what you know well than it is to forge your own pathway on what some may call “the road less traveled.” For me, I took the easy road and decided study Spanish in Barcelona (where I later learned the language spoken is actually Catalan) hoping for a full immersive experience and instead finding myself with an empty bucket list and a feeling of disappointment in my own ability to immerse more fully in the local culture. It wasn’t until I started traveling after college that I realized my real mistake was not how I behaved on my program and in Spain, but how I picked the program to begin with.
During my study abroad, it did not matter if I learned to speak Catalan better or lived in the same building as someone, I was obviously an American and was almost always treated like a tourist. It was difficult to find restaurants and bars that had not been Americanized with US pop music and American football on the Television and I didn’t make any local friends until the last week of my time abroad despite valiant efforts, everyone I met seemed to be a visiting tourist. I knew that I was hoping for a more local experience but there are a few questions I should have answered before choosing this destination:
- What language is spoken where I am going? Do they speak English there and if so, is it because of the culture or because of the location. For example, in Athens Greece the location as a tourist destination means that most people speak English while in Thessaloniki, Greece most people speak English because of a high international student population
- Will I be in classes with local students? If you are looking for an immersive experience, class with local students is a wonderful way to meet locals and learn more about the culture but it is surprising how many programs abroad serve only students from the US.
- Where will I live? Even in some of the main tourist destinations, where you live can affect your ability to feel like you are a part of the local community. If your program is in a residential area and you will be living on campus with other US students, it is important to think about how this might affect your ability to live the same lifestyle that the locals would.
Since my study abroad experience in 2014, I have taken short trips to places like Thessaloniki, Greece and Chiclayo, Peru where in a few days, I felt like I was more engrained in the local community than I felt in the few months that I lived in Barcelona. These experiences lead me to my career in study abroad, helping students connect with a destination that they may not have even heard of, for an immersive experience that they could never forget. I asked several study abroad returnees about their experiences studying in a place that they had often never heard of, here is what they have to say…
“Going somewhere not as “popular” means that you can get a more authentic experience and really get to learn about the culture first hand.” – Allison Hansen (Iowa State)
“I loved the fact that Thessaloniki is a smaller walkable city so you can really live the “Greek life” and not knowing the language was very intriguing to me!” –Ella Bertucci (Northern Michigan University)
“It definitely gave me a more realistic view of what daily Greek life is like! A more popular city would have meant a more commercialized idea of the country! I liked that it was more unknown so there was always something new to discover!” Hannah Senne (Michigan State)
For students looking for a more immersive experience abroad, it is worthwhile to consider destinations outside of the top 6 European countries (United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, France, Germany and Ireland) where over 40% of US Study Abroad students will earn credit in order to gain a more local experience. Here are some top tips to help you pick your non-traditional destination abroad.
Tips for picking an immersive destination
- There is a difference between “commercialized” and “Americanized,” if you can’t find a Starbucks TM but you can find many local coffee shops, that is a great sign for an immersive cultural experience!
- Consider opportunities in capital cities that are not as “well known” such as Tirana, Albania or Sofia, Bulgaria for a more immersive and less touristic feel.
- Medium and Small cities tend to have a more local feel while still offering the amenities of a tourist destination, check out the second largest city in the more well known countries that you are researching.
- Still want to see cool sites? UNESCO has a list of protected sites around the world, many in cities that you have never heard of with credits waiting to be earned!
Wherever you study abroad, you will have a life changing experience- learning more about yourself, your abilities, and your resiliency than you ever have at home, but if you would like to expand upon this experience further, considering a non-traditional destination for your international education may just be your path to the road less traveled and “that makes all the difference.”