If you’re in college or planning on going, you may be considering taking a semester or two to study abroad in a different country. Go you! Studying abroad is an exciting opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the world around you and the vast number of different cultures in it. You’ll try new things, be confronted by new challenges, and meet new and wonderful people!
But planning for your Study Abroad Trip can be daunting, and there are many different factors to consider when deciding which program is best for you.
I chose to study for a semester in Florence, Italy during my last year studying art at Columbia College. I had to carefully consider how the location and school would enhance my studies, and make sure I could afford everything.
When I was budgeting for my trip, I did some digging. I researched the school that the study abroad programs I was interested in would send me to, and I saw that a semester of Tuition and Housing for Istituto Lorenzo De’Medici’s program in Florence cost as much as Tuition to my home College. And my cost applying directly to the school was lower than what most companies were charging for the same program at the same Institute.
I will admit, I left my semester in Italy with just 45 EUR in my wallet, and there were a couple side trips I took where I returned to Florence with 0 EUR. But I feel like part of the college experience is being broke all the time, and using that experience to learn how to manage your money more effectively.
Selecting Your Ideal Study Abroad Program
Depending on how far along in your studies you are, you may want different things from your Study Abroad experience. If you have yet to decide on a major, but are itching to explore, you may want to find a generalized study program that focuses on things such as the Language and History of the country where you will be living. If you’re already proficient in a foreign language, you can take many general education courses in the country’s native language geared towards study abroad students. If you are at least halfway through your major, you will most likely want to find a program that aligns with and expands upon your studies.
The great thing about study abroad programs is that you have the opportunity to take some unique courses. You can learn to cook traditional cuisine, you can learn science or math in a foreign language, you can gain intimate knowledge of local culture, and of course you can learn a new language and practice it with the locals. You may only have the opportunity to study some things by studying abroad, such as advanced languages or location-specific histories, philosophies, and cultural traditions. Just be sure to check with your home institute that the classes will transfer back if you want credit for them! You can find course catalogs online and compare the courses offered with your degree requirements.
You will also need to decide whether you want to focus on study or travel. Depending on the courses you select, they may be intensive and demanding, and you may not have much free time to use to travel, or you can choose a light load of easier courses and spend a lot of your free time traveling and exploring other places.
I was studying art at Columbia College, so I took two art classes (oil painting and printmaking), an art history class, and Italian 1, totaling 12 credit hours. I normally took 15 credit hours per semester at my College in Chicago, so my workload was light, giving me plenty of time to do lots of touristy things and have plenty of energy to make art.
Navigating the Cost of Studying Abroad
When you research Study Abroad programs you will find many companies offering programs. The most important thing is to check if the courses offered in their program will transfer back to your home university. There are other non-credit opportunities that are available such as community service or travel-intensive programs, but your school may or may not give you credit hours for the experience.
The costs for very similar sounding programs may vary wildly. This can be because of many reasons, such as location, included side trips, airfare or other transportation, accommodations, or other miscellaneous costs.
This is where you have a huge opportunity to save money bypassing the companies and applying directly to the school. Once you have found a program or two that sounds like it meets your needs, try to find out the name of the school you will be studying at. Google the schools and find tuition and housing costs.
You’ll have to make some notes and do some math, but many times companies will charge up to 50% more than what the total cost would be if you did everything yourself. The key here is that by applying directly to the school you will be arranging many things yourself. You will need to arrange airfare, and housing, at the least, and you may have to arrange travel for side trips. Certain things that need to be standardized such as study permits and health insurance will most likely be arranged by the school itself.
Many things that these companies claim to “offer” are actually handled by the school you will be attending, and the company is merely connecting you with the service. For example, the side trips presented in many packages were offered to me directly through the school a-la-carte style.
I bought my plane ticket through a AAA Travel Agent, and it cost me about half as much as what some of the companies charged. I flew direct from Chicago to Rome, and once I arrived I had to buy a train ticket to take me the rest of the way. I was comfortable with this because I live in Chicago and I’m used to taking public trains. I saw it as a new adventure, and I was treated to the unique experience of an old Italian man trying to sell me over-sized socks at the Rome terminal gate, and when I refused he gave them to me for free.
If you plan on going to other cities for more than just a day, you will need to find a safe place to stay. Hostels are usually your best bet, and are actually really safe as long as you do your research with reviews. Hostels will be your cheapest option and normally have dorm-style accommodations, which means up to 20 people will have bunks in a common room, and there will be a number of shared bathrooms. Some hostels have hotel-style accommodations, where you will share a room with a maximum of 3 other people and have an in-suite bathroom.
In Florence I stayed in a hotel-style hostel in a double room. My room had a private bath, but the kitchen had no cooking elements, just a fridge and a sink. I would go down to my friend’s 3-person room and use their hotplate to cook my dinners. Our hostel had two bars (one on the rooftop deck and one downstairs), a downstairs restaurant and lounge, a pool, a workout room, a (pricey) laundry room, and 24-hour security. While the 24-hour security at my home college’s dorm was more of an inconvenience, I was deeply grateful for the 24-hour hostel security.
Traveling While You Study
Although your host city will ideally have plenty to offer in terms of cultural experiences, you will likely wish to maximize your time abroad and visit other places in proximity to your new temporary home.
You may wish to rent or purchase a bicycle to get around your city, especially if the climate is good and public transit is lacking. Some shops may have “student rental specials” or other deals, and your school may even be able to direct you where to look. Instead of walking to school every day, I rented a bike for the semester, and it really opened up the city to me.
While booking flights and trains for side trips can be cheaper if done in advance, there are plenty of cheap last-minute and budget options available. Trains can be a very inexpensive option (especially for travel within the same country), and you may even want to look into getting a Eurail Pass if you plan on traveling often and are in a good location to do so. The Alps in the north cut off Italy from the rest of Europe, so train travel to other countries wasn’t really feasible and I didn’t purchase a pass.
I flew with Ryan Air a lot, and I usually paid no more than 15 EUR per one-way trip. This is a budget airline, and so doesn’t have much by the way of fancy amenities, but since most continental plane rides were less than two hours, that didn’t really bother me. I didn’t take any school-sponsored excursions, but I did get to see Rome, Venice, Monterosso (Cinque Terre), Pisa, Barcelona, and Amsterdam (which was a lot to fit into one semester). I desperately longed to visit the Gardens at Bomarzo, but never had time to make the bus trip.
I’m a bold MF’er, and I broke the rule about not traveling alone. I made the trek to Amsterdam twice by myself to meet up with friends there, and I took a solo weekend trip to Barcelona right before finals. I don’t recommend staying alone in a strange city, but if you do, be sure to check in with your buddies in your host city frequently.
Staying Safe While Abroad
Tourists are always in a vulnerable position while traveling. They often have no personal connections in the city outside of the group they travel with, are often carrying large amounts of cash with them for convenience, are often in an unfamiliar place and are maybe even confused about local customs and laws. Thieves and other ne’er-do-wells know this and seek to take advantage of tourists and young travelers.
Because of this, you should not only secure your valuables (in zippered pouches on the front of your body, or in lockboxes at hotels and hostels), but make sure you aren’t displaying large amounts of cash or valuable accessories. Always, always be aware of your surroundings especially at night or in crowded places, especially bars and clubs, and avoid buying things from vendors whose wares are spread out on the ground or carried on their person (usually indicating they do not have a permit). Even legitimate looking establishments may be a tourist scam, so try to learn as much about the local languages and laws as you can to avoid being tricked. Do some googling and search “tourist scams in [country or city]” for each place you will travel.
Be sure to pick up a city map and carry it with you. Some maps (especially free ones) will have popular tourist attractions marked, but these ones can also be visually confusing, and numbering systems for street addresses can be tricky (such as red and black numbers on Florentine buildings designating either businesses or residences). Plan out your day’s journey before you head out.
If you need to approach someone for assistance, find either an officer or other public servant such as a bus driver. In a non-emergency (such as asking for directions) you may wish to approach other tourists, especially if you’re not comfortable speaking the local language. Try to approach families or groups of students, but do not follow people you have just met if you are in an unfamiliar place.
Make sure that your family or other people that care about your well being know what cities you will be traveling to, and have your contact information, and the numbers and addresses of the places you will be staying. Have them also hang onto copies of your important documents, such as passports and other identification, insurance cards and health documents, and tickets and confirmation pages, and keep copies of all of these at the place you are staying.
Studying while traveling abroad is a great way to gain a lot of life experience in a relatively short amount of time, but no experience is without it’s hazards. Remember to plan ahead and keep yourself safe, and you will come out of it a more well-rounded and worldly person!
If you’re planning on studying art, or studying in Italy, I highly recommend The Lorenzo de’Medici International Institute. They have programs in Florence, Rome, Tuscania, and a 3-city program, and are not only accredited in the U.S. but they are also certified by the Italian Ministry of Education. Check out some of the parody art I made in their printmaking class: