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How to Choose an International Experience

It is important that students choose an appropriate program to get the most out of an international experience.  Because there are a variety of program types, structures, locations, and requirements, it is worth the time and effort it takes to find a program that meets your individual academic and personal needs.

Programs have distinctive characteristics, like students, and thus it is important to find the right “match” between the student and the program.  Your friend, or sister, or teacher may have participated in a program that was “absolutely great” for them, but may not be a good fit for you.  Thus, a glowing recommendation from someone who went on a program is not necessarily the most appropriate approach to choosing a program.

  • Understand your needs and characteristics before choosing a program
  • Explore several options and compare program characteristics
  • Choose a program that fits your needs and characteristics

Your Needs and Characteristics

Ask yourself these questions, and get a friend or family member to confer with you on these topics.

  1. What type of courses do you need to take (major requirements, major electives, general education requirements or lower-division courses, electives)?
  2. What academic topics do you need (and want) to study (only your major, or a mix of academic disciplines)?
  3. Does your home institution approve experiential courses (ie, internships, field study, independent study, independent research, service-learning, touring)?
  4. Can you take courses in another language / are you sufficiently fluent?
  5. Do you have beginning or intermediate foreign language skills?
  6. Does your home institution have requirements about the number of weeks and/or contact hours the courses must fulfill to transfer credit?
  7. Would you feel comfortable living in a fast-paced, urban city where it is difficult to make friends and interact with locals living in a city?
  8. Do you feel comfortable using public transportation (buses, taxis, trains)?
  9. Would you prefer to live in a community where you can easily navigate your way, and meet local people?
  10. Does the weather bother you? Have you experienced the type of climate common to the host country you are considering?
  11. Are you a self-starter, outgoing, and self-motivated, experienced in exploring new/different situations?
  12. Do you prefer functioning in a group with leaders and/or guides making decisions for you and being surrounded by others much like yourself?
  13. Do you have any dietary, medical or mental health needs?
  14. Do you want to become a “specialist” in one location (language and culture and history and current events) or do you want a comparative perspective of several different places and perspectives?
  15. Have your friends or family ever called you “high maintenance”?  Do you have a high level of attention to conveniences, personal appearance, the newest fads or specific activities?
  16. Do you enjoy camping, hiking, backpacking, “roughing it”?
  17. Do you have a good sense of how (and if) you will use alcohol in a mature setting?  Have you ever been disruptive of others or put your well-being at risk with alcohol?
  18. Have you ever traveled before?  Outside the U.S.? If yes, how long and where?
  19. How long have you ever been away from “home” before, away from family and friends?
  20. What type of leisure activities do you enjoy?  What do you do with your “free-time”?

Program Types

Direct enrollment

Explore colleges and universities in other countries, and directly enroll in a program that allows “transient” or “international” students.


Utilize an established relationship through your school that exchanges students with another designated college or university.

Program provider

Participate in a program administered by an organization offering study abroad support services.


Participate in a program administered by a U.S. college or university and taught by a U.S. professor.



Location, geography, language, population, economic/industrial development, cost of living, food, health and safety conditions, climate, ease of transportation, etc.


Do you have beginner, intermediate, or advanced language skills in the host country primary language?  What is the English language fluency of the local population?

 Community / City size

Cosmopolitan city, Urban city, industrial city, suburban city, town, rural community

Host institution

Enrollment size, percentage of local students and international students, urban campus or enclosed campus, facilities available, teaching style, language of instruction, grading/assessment style, academic options, academic rigor, distance from housing,

Living conditions

Homestay, residence hall, apartment, house, hotel, with all Americans, with all locals, distance to shopping, entertainment, school, transportation, shared or not, cost of living, where will you eat meals?







Direct Enrollment


- Authentic academic experience w/ locals.

-  Immersion with local students.

-  Likely to be less expensive.


- Unfamiliar administrative bureaucracy, teaching style, support services.

- Unexpected costs.



- Tuition cost will be the same as you pay on your home campus.

- Your campus has an established contact person at host institution.


- Unfamiliar administrative bureaucracy, teaching style, support services.

- Unexpected costs.

Program Provider


- Support services established for the needs ofU.S. students.

- You get what you pay for.


- You pay extra for support services.

- Sometimes isolated/marginalized from host country people and culture.



- Most of the time, accompanied by a professor you know and trust.

- Take classes that are familiar and similar to what you would take on your home campus.

-  A group of U.S. students, most often from your home school.


- Take classes that are familiar and similar to what you would take on your home campus.

-  A group of U.S. students, most often from your home school.

- Faculty not necessarily trained to provide full-service support and study abroad best practices and standards.



- Someplace that excites you.

- A pleasant break from your “home”.



- Not what you expected.

- Do not like the weather, or food, or living conditions.

- Not comfortable with under-developed status, OR strategy for political or economic development.



- Language was less of an obstacle than expected.

- I would like to learn a new language now.


- Language was a bigger obstacle than expected.

-  I did not have the level of language skills I thought I had.

Community / City


- Love the different shops, restaurants, activities.

-  Just the right size.

-  Experienced new activities that I never knew I would like.

- Transportation was easy.

- Scenic and/or comfortable.


- Too big or too small for my enjoyment.

- It was hard to meet locals, or make friends with locals.

- Transportation was not adequate.

- City was ugly, dirty, noisy, boring..

Host Institution


- Love that it was much bigger or smaller than my home campus.

- Conducive to meeting local students and making friends

- Local professor and students were friendly, helpful and welcoming of foreign students.

- Courses were meaningful and challenging and motivated me to learn more.


- Hate that it was much bigger or smaller than my home campus.

- Not conducive to meeting locals or making friends.

-  Local professors did not like or know how to deal with foreign students.

- Courses too easy or too hard.

Living Conditions


- Love my housing.

- Lived close to campus.

- Cost of living less than theU.S.

- Conducive to meeting locals and making friends.

- I felt so comfortable because it was similar to what I am used to, OR because it was new and something I liked.

- Made it easy to focus on academics.


- Hate my housing.

- Lived too far from campus.

- Cost of living much more than the U.S.

- Not conducive to meeting locals and making friends.

- I felt so Uncomfortable because it was something I could not adapt to.

-  A huge distraction from my academics.

By Dr. Sandi M. Smith, Director of Institutional Relations, Global Learning Semesters, 2008

Xavier University of Louisiana Center for Intercultural and International Programs