One of the hardest parts of studying abroad is deciding where you want to spend the next 5-10 months of your life. It sounds like a long time, and it can be, but my oh my does it go by fast. I don’t know anyone who regrets SA, although I know plenty of people who wish they’d gone somewhere else. What do you even consider?
1. Where is the one place you’d LOVE, absolutely go bananas, to visit and live?
So often people know the answer to this in a heartbeat and then they can’t decide where to SA because it is too overwhelming. Most people going to SA are also going somewhere they’ve never been and they may have never even left their home state before. Everyone has to leave home for a “first time”. So don’t worry about it!
Ignore your desire to see the entire world or even a specific landmark. If you SA in Cambodia you’re going to Angkor Wat once or twice, not every weekend like you do in your Indiana Jones fantasy life. Think about who you are and what a city is known for. Are you taking long walks on the Seine looking at antique books while wrapped up in 10 scarves? Are you down on Bondi beach 24/7 running, diving, and drinking? Your school probably has essays written by students who have gone before you and they can also give you the e-mail address of a previous student if you need to pick their brain. Find out the day-to-day and ignore anything you’d find in a guidebook.
2. Do you really want to live your fantasy life?
Sometimes fantasy doesn’t live up to reality and sometimes we don’t live up to our ideas of ourselves. If you’re not a pro-hiker at home why do you think you’ll become one once abroad? If you think you have the potential and you want to live a new lifestyle for SA, go for it, but don’t box yourself into pretending to be something you’re not.
3. Do you want to be with friends?
If you won’t go to the school store alone you may not want to move to Japan alone either. While I wouldn’t recommend choosing your SA destination based on what a friend wants (and it will come up, trust me), deciding that going alone is too far out of your comfort level is fine. SA is challenging and you should push yourself only so far.
Tip: Start going out alone. See a movie solo, eat lunch alone, figure out a map by yourself. This is a good way to gauge your instincts and see if you have fun alone. I always have more fun with other people and am not a big proponent of traveling alone (especially for women) but I don’t mind going out without my friends. Find a way to balance your fears and your fearless expectations for yourself.
4. Do you want to be with family?
China is really far away and a Semester at Sea often comes with no cell reception. If you get homesick easily, or if your favorite pet is nearing the end of their life, consider the fact that you may not make it home. This is a scary thought, and you don’t want to get too frantic with the hypothetical, but a healthy dose of reality is always good.
5. What do you want to do on the weekend?
If you SA in Berlin you can weekend in Paris, if you SA in Sydney you can weekend in the outback. Both are tempting, but one must win your heart. Passport stamps are an addiction and if you want to get to the end of the passport Europe or Asia are the way to go.
6. Can you speak the language?
Most people use SA to become fluent in a language they are already studying and many programs require you to take a semester of the native language before you go. If you’re not a natural omniglot this can be stressful and you need to make a realistic plan for how you will handle that stress. You can go to England and avoid it (sort of) or go to France and embrace it.