Study abroad may sound like a dream come true, but preventing a nightmare requires some prep. The best time to do your research? "When choosing an undergraduate college," says Mary Dwyer, president of the Institute for the International Education of Students, which runs study abroad and internship programs for colleges and universities. Here are some considerations for the adventurously inclined.
"Everyone speaks American!" Don't end up in an American ghetto. "Anytime there's a location with heaps and heaps of Americans running around, you tend to find more students going for the social reasons," says Jan Kieling at the University of California-Berkeley. To make the most of being abroad, get close to the people and culture.
Worcester Polytechnic Institute tries to make sure that happens. About half of its student body goes to sites from Denmark to Thailand to work in small groups on solving local challenges. In post-apartheid Namibia, that means grappling with the country's troubled history-and communicating with families living in some of the poorest settlements in the world. "It's about learning with them," says Rob Krueger, co-director of WPI's Namibia project sites.
Credit check. WPI's seven-week terms abroad follow seven weeks of prep on the home campus-a requirement that bars outsiders from participating. At the other end of the spectrum, some colleges let you study abroad with another school, but you need to ask if the credits will transfer. Boston University, for example, offers studies and internships in Haifa and Tel Aviv, Israel. BU's own students are preapproved and get full credit, but because of a State Department travel warning about Israel, "certain schools won't accept any credit," says Joseph Finkhouse of the university's international programs office.
Money matters. Check school rules on financial aid. Federal funds must transfer overseas with a student, but state and institutional money might not have to. Studyabroadfunding.com and Fastweb.com can identify sources of extra cash. And watch out for service fees: Colleges are increasingly tacking on surcharges-even if you go on an outside program-that range from $100 to $2,500, says Dwyer.
Minibreaks. Catherine Semrau, a senior at Michigan State University, went on a seminar to Monterrey, Mexico, during spring break of her freshman year. That inspired a second trip to the Netherlands, France, Belgium, and Spain in the summer of 2006-the exact intention of MSU's miniprograms, now offered in the weeks before freshman year starts.
Job prospects. While an undergrad at Notre Dame, Peter Quaranto spent a summer working with kids in Cambodia. Then he headed for Uganda, where he took classes at Makerere University and helped lay the groundwork for the Uganda Conflict Action Network, a peace advocacy group he developed in his senior year. Now a grad student, he's determined to work on international policy. "Not only do unconventional study-abroad trips provide for great storytelling," he says; "they set you apart in terms of skills and perspectives."
U.S. News lists about 300 A-plus schools for B students, updated for the 2008 edition of America's Best Colleges. Getting in isn't necessarily easy, but all of these colleges accept a meaningful percentage of applicants with a desire to achieve but less-than-stellar grades. Click here to find a school that's right for you.
By Sarah Baldauf