You pick the place. You pick the program. And, according to the experts, it (kind of) matters.

One thing we remember clearly about Ashley’s experience in planning her study abroad is that she was set on going to India. It was a nonnegotiable for her, almost like a calling, and something she had to do. But for many, the decision of where to do their study abroad semester can be a bit less obvious. It’s so much more than just choosing a place you’d like to vacation — it’s a place you want to live, learn, explore, and grow. But you can’t just throw a dart at a map. (Or can you?)

We turned to two pros to weigh in. Joshua Hudson, Study Abroad Coordinator at Clemson University, and Holly Bouma, Associate Director of International Programs at University of Central Florida, who each advise students day in and day out on program, place, and everything in between. And they had some pretty insightful — and sometimes surprising — things to say that are sure to get any prospective study abroad student’s wheels churning before they take the plunge.

1. If someone walked into your office and said, “I know I want to study abroad next term but don’t know where to start,” how would you advise them?

I always start by asking students about their “dream” location for studying abroad. That helps me gather what region of the world they are most interested in. Then I discuss the different types of programs we offer – Exchange, Direct Enroll, Provider – and provide an overview of the pros and cons of each type. Then I usually look at the student’s major and current coursework to see what program best fits their academic goals. By that time we have narrowed it down to 3-5 programs.

— Holly Bouma, University of Central Florida

2. How would you advise a student who knows they want to travel to a specific country – say, France – but who is unsure about whether to go rural or urban? How do they choose between Paris and Provence?

We ask the student to consider their needs and wants from the program. We have them to take into consideration their home life, school life, personal, and profession goals. We want them to think about what they want from this experience. Are they focused on language and culture? In which location could they focus more on language and culture? Also, because Clemson is a small town, it may be a great time for a student to attend a more urban campus in a large city.

— Joshua Hudson, Clemson University


3. Should language skills (or lack thereof!) factor into the decision on where to go?

For all of our study abroad programs, the students only need to know English for the academic part. But outside the classroom, they need to be willing to speak or to learn a new language. Even if they don’t speak that language, they should be willing to learn survival phrases or take an introductory course. For some students, the language learning is top priority, like those going to Spain or France, but for others they are more interested in learning about international business and not so much the language. So I have to get a feel for their study abroad intentions and then take it from there.

— Holly Bouma, University of Central Florida

4. Should diet play into what destination they choose? For instance, can you still go to Italy if you eat a gluten-free diet?

I think it’s an important factor for students to consider. Are they okay with meeting their host culture halfway if they have a difficult dietary restriction?

— Joshua Hudson, Clemson University

5. How would you advise a student who wants to go to a specific destination but whose university doesn’t have an established relationship with any programs in that specific destination?  In other words, how important is university relationships in choosing a program and place to study abroad?

I am the type of advisor that wants to make any student’s abroad dream come true. Therefore, I am willing to customize program and find a provider program or direct enroll program in a specific location. Of course I always go through a vetting process when selecting the provider (if it’s a new one) or direct enroll institution. But I can make any location happen!

— Holly Bouma, University of Central Florida

If they choose to go outside of our establishment we want them to know that we’re here to assist them in the process. But they do need to be prepared for the individuality of getting the program approved and what difficulties they may face along the way.

— Joshua Hudson, Clemson University

6.We always want our scholarship recipients, and all students who study abroad, to above all be safe and healthy. With that in mind, are there are any destinations that you recommend students not go during their term abroad?

Yes, we advise students to avoid anywhere that there is a U.S. State Department Travel Warning.

— Joshua Hudson, Clemson University

We actually have a whole International Health & Safety Team that determines where students are allowed to study and if there are any restrictions. They generally follow the guidelines of the Department of State Travel List. I tell students to use this as a guide.

— Holly Bouma, University of Central Florida

7. Do you have any advice for a student going to a more high risk destination?

Use the resources provided by our Pre-Departure Orientation from our International Health & Safety team and make sure you follow all of their advice with regards to health and safety abroad. Depending on the health conditions there, I would tell students to visit our Travel Clinic on campus to speak with a doctor to see if they need any vaccinations.

— Holly Bouma, University of Central Florida

We have the student complete a High Risk Travel Destination Form that just gets the student thinking about their destination and specific health and safety concerns. We also encourage students to enroll in the STEP program from the US State Department.

— Joshua Hudson, Clemson University

8. There are some programs – the most well-known likely being Semester at Sea – that allow students to travel to multiple destinations in one term. What do you think of these?

I think a program like this is good for some students and bad for others and there are pros and cons. We want our students to learn about their host culture and truly become one with them. Sometimes on multiple country programs that can be difficult because you don’t have a host culture. However, the benefit is to see multiple cultures in relation to their home culture. It also allows students to compare multiple cultures that they visit.
— Joshua Hudson, Clemson University

9. Any other parting words of wisdom for prospective study abroad students looking to pick a place? 

I always tell students that any study abroad experience is better than nothing! So no matter what program they choose, it will change their life. It’s the experience of “being abroad” that students love, more than where they go. So with that in mind don’t stress out too much about location!
— Holly Bouma, University of Central Florida
We’d advise students to use this experience to travel and study somewhere that you wouldn’t necessarily take a vacation to in the future. Think outside the box. This is your time to study and learn about another part of the world. It’s your time to be brave.
— Joshua Hudson, Clemson University
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