Where Should I Study Abroad?

As I am often speaking with students about the concept of "learning service" and encouraging them to prioritize global "learning" and development education prior to jumping straight into international "service," I often get the question, "Where should I study abroad?"
11/03/2014 06:16 pm ET Updated Jan 03, 2015

As I am often speaking with students about the concept of "learning service" and encouraging them to prioritize global "learning" and development education prior to jumping straight into international "service," I often get the question, "Where should I study abroad?"

My very broad answer would be: Consider what you want to learn -- are you looking to gain knowledge about a certain part of the world, a specific global issue, or a certain skill or language? Or are you open to any broad global and personal development learning opportunity and you want to find the most qualified and thoughtful mentors and organizers through which to have that experience? Whatever your goals, the key is researching your options, speaking with past participants, and seeking out an opportunity that fits your learning journey.

With so many options out there, I thought I'd reflect on what options I might have enjoyed if I could go back in time and give myself advice. Rather than exploring the many fantastic changemaker education programs out there (which Ben Keene just did very well), these examples are more traditional study abroad semester options for socially conscious university students who are looking to get a lay of the study abroad land.

An African leadership immersion -- For students looking to gain the skills, networks, and experience to be effective globally-minded leaders in the future, an understanding of the opportunities and challenges in Africa is essential. One of the most impressive universities I have come across is Ashesi University in Ghana. One of the best universities in Africa, it is situated on a beautiful piece of land on the outskirts of Accra and has a focus on leadership development for its students. If I could go back in time, I'd certainly look to spend a semester at Ashesi surrounded by and learning with Africa's future leaders. (Note: For those worried about Ebola, please make sure not to disregard an entire continent in your search! Would you still travel to Chicago if there was a health concern in LA? I would. Ghana has had no cases of Ebola and neither have any of the countries surrounding Ghana.)

A rural development and entrepreneurship experience -- There are few global challenges and opportunities that are more pressing than food security, ethical and safe food production, and our global agricultural future. EARTH University is the only program on this list that I have not visited or experienced, but I find their offering too compelling not to include. I have met with the leadership at EARTH a few times through my work, and the more I learn about this 20+ year-old program in Costa Rica, the more regretful I am that it is was not part of my own life experiences. Every student who studies at EARTH not only benefits from the agricultural base of their program, but is also given access to funding to start and grow their own business. Rather than just learning about social entrepreneurship, here is a university where you are given a structured experiential education opportunity to put that business learning into practice. To me, this sounds like a life-changing, eye-opening, and earth-connecting program and even if you aren't able to spend all of your undergraduate years in Costa Rica, you can add hands-on experience to your university studies by spending a semester there and joining an existing student-run business.

A global learning trip -- Rather than selecting an international campus in which to study, another option is to choose a study abroad trip that offers for-credit semester programs. One of the best companies I have come across in my international education work is Where There Be Dragons, a Colorado-based global education company. Dragons got its name from its roots in trips to China. In ancient Chinese maps, a dragon was drawn in areas that had not yet been explored, and for more than the last twenty years Dragons has been offering trips in "undiscovered," or at least less-visited, areas of the world. Global trips with top international travel programs like Dragons provide opportunities for language learning, structured development education and "learning service" opportunities, as well as internship opportunities which can serve as a solid base for further global development work upon graduation.

A floating university circumnavigating the globe -- Want the structure of a university study-abroad experience without the confines of one set of international borders? In university, I was lucky to study abroad on Semester at Sea, a "floating university" offering a semester around the world. Yes, literally, around the world. I describe circumnavigating the globe and visiting 10 countries along the way as access to "appetizers to the world." What you miss out on in regards to an in-depth experience in one culture is countered by the opportunity to experience and learn about life in a broad range of countries, including places like Kenya, Japan, Cuba, and Morocco. Learning about the history of conflicts in South East Asia comes to life if you are about to get off a ship and visit the very places you have been reading about. For those students interested in international development or global social entrepreneurship, you can get a chance to visit a range of organizations on your journey before choosing one place to focus a longer chunk of your learning experience in the future.

A world-renowned global institution - Considering new locations in which to study is just as important as understanding your personal preferred learning methods and learning how you like to learn. Some schools, like the University of Oxford, use tutorial-based courses, providing self-motivated learners the opportunity to meet one-on-one each week, often with a world-renowned professor, to debate and critically analyze their learning, rather than sit in a large lecture hall.

Feel like you missed out by not studying abroad at one of these places? For those looking for graduate programs, consider a masters program abroad and note that many European universities, like Oxford, offer one-year masters programs. Don't let price tags deter you. If you are a social entrepreneur, Saïd Business School's MBA program at Oxford offers full scholarships to up to five social entrepreneurs each year through the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship. If you are determined to join any of these programs, yet they seem too far out of your financial reach, ask about scholarships. Many of them have full or partial scholarships, offer work-study options, or can take financial aid from your home institution.

Don't overlook doing your own research! These are just a small window into the plethora of study abroad options that can add to your personal development and your ability to positively impact global development.... which are entirely interlinked.