As my first semester abroad in Madrid dwindles to a few remaining weeks and preparations for my next semester in Chile heats up I wanted to share my tips on choosing the best study abroad program for you.

University students across the globe and particularly from the U.S can have, depending on finances and graduation requirements, the opportunity to spend a semester (or two!) studying in another country. This is a unique and wonderful opportunity for you, the student, to immerse yourself in another culture, maybe practice or acquire a new language and break out of the “bubble” of your home campus.

With so many programs and locations on offer students struggle to choose the best one for them. It’s easier oftentimes to spend your semester with your friends, in a country without a large language barrier with a program supported and run by your home university. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend doing this though there’s nothing wrong with the above option if that experience satisfies what you want out of your study abroad. Before you make your decision I’d urge you to answer these questions.

1.Why do I want to study abroad?

It seems like a simple question but oftentimes especially at a U.S university it seems as though every single junior is studying abroad and you should too…for reasons you haven’t really thought about. Do you want a chance to travel and see the world? Immerse yourself in a culture that’s very different to yours? “Test-run” a country or city you think you might like to live in later on? Practice language skills? Or just have a crazy, fun time? Once you have an idea of

why you want to go picking the right program becomes easier.

2.What are my goals for the semester?

This question forces you to refine your answers to question one. What do you want to leave your semester having accomplished? Is it to solidify current friendships or make new ones? Is it to see as much of the world as possible or to really get to know a community? Is it to practice a second (or third) language or explore an academic passion? Write down 3 goals for your semester abroad – it will help you pick and keep you on track when you’re there!

3.How can I push myself out of my comfort zone?

This one is really important, and part of the reason I am doing two semesters abroad. I like to have fun and feel secure as much as the next person but the point of studying abroad is not to transfer your American/Australian bubble to another country. It is not going to be like home, that is the point. If you expect it to be, even subconsciously you’re going to be disappointed. The experience of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone will be different for different people. For some study abroad will mean leaving the country for the first time, for others it will be travelling alone or speaking in a foreign language or living in a city or living in a developing country. Think about how your study abroad can challenge you the most and take the challenge wholeheartedly and cheerfully.

4.What are my options?

This is the biggest question that I think students ineffectively consider when they look into study abroad options. Universities likely have list of university sponsored or approved programs and students pick from that list without considering what else is out there. That is completely fine if those programs fit the reasons, goals and means of challenging yourself that you have established. Sometimes, because of graduation requirements you will have to pick an option that isn’t “perfect”. If those programs don’t exactly meet what you want or need keep looking. There are hundreds of external programs, other universities, countries and opportunities to be found – Google is your friend. Don’t settle or go with what your friends are doing before you’ve truly seen all your options.

In answering these questions close to a year ago I realized that, for me, two semesters abroad with non-Duke programs was what I wanted and needed out of my study abroad experience.

I wanted to study abroad to improve my Spanish, increase my understanding of different cultures, explore and travel, make new friends and use and develop my skills learnt in cultural anthropology. My main goals were to achieve a high level of Spanish, live in an environment very different from my own, move away from the “Duke bubble” and be a more aware and sensitive world citizen (whilst still graduating on time!).

I therefore picked Syracuse University in Madrid for my first semester. This was not previously approved by Duke and so I had to collect a lot of documents, get them signed by various people and petition for approval. I’m so glad I did; I’ve made new friends, improved my Spanish, taken classes that fit well with my major and minor, had a very positive host family experience, been able to travel throughout Europe and still see my friends from Duke.

My next semester with SIT (School for International Training) is a cultural anthropology immersion and will help me fulfill some of my other goals. I will be living in a part of the world I’ve never explored, in an environment that’s very different and unfamiliar to me, with no one I know anywhere near, with a much more Spanish-intensive curriculum and the opportunity to independently research a specific interest. I’m incredibly excited for this very unique experience!

The programs I chose required extra research, effort and paperwork, which was a small price to pay for what they offer me. Two semesters abroad is an unusual choice and I feel very privileged to be able to have this opportunity to engage with a range of academic, personal and cultural interests. I can only hope your study abroad will offer you the same!