In June, Amanda Pfeifer was waking up for class in the African desert with an elephant above her tent for an alarm clock. Katie Angus was waking up to a view of the Eiffel Tower and grabbing a chocolate crossiant on her way to class. Both were part of UA study abroad programs.
Angus, a doctoral student and a graduate associate in teaching for the UA French department, said students should thoroughly research which program fits them best before locking in on a single place.
""Students should really think about where they want to go. Often if they want to study a language there will be several different countries and cities to go to,"" Angus said. ""They need to figure out their goals, like literature, languages, classes in their major, because a lot of that really determines which program they can choose.""
Other students stumble on their study abroad destination at the many expositions held on the UA Mall.
""It was sort of spontaneous,"" said Pfeifer, a biochemistry sophomore who spent her summer in Namibia, Africa. ""I was just walking down the Mall and saw a sign for it and I had always wanted to do study abroad and go to Africa so I decided to do it.""
Some students have studied abroad earlier in life and choose to continue in college.
Emily Hendershot, currently studying abroad in Stellenbosch, South Africa, has been living abroad since childhood.
""My parents have always encouraged me to learn about foreign cultures and languages. We lived abroad for a few years when I was young, which led me to enjoy traveling from a very young age,"" she said in an e-mail. ""When I first did a foreign exchange, it was in high school, and it was possibly the best summer of my life: meeting people from around the world while being both visitor and host.""
Most students who have studied internationally say a longer stay is more beneficial for language study.
Marissa Pullen, studied in Heidelberg, Germany during the spring of 2009.
""I would get nervous, afraid that I would make mistakes and I thought people would judge me, which was really stupid,"" Pullen said of her first weeks in Germany. ""After two weeks of being there I stopped getting really nervous. But it was helpful because you use another language every single day for everything you do. It was amazing. I was able to really improve my German enough so I took a test to see if I know enough German to be admitted to a German university and study there. I got a high enough grade on it and I was accepted to another university in Germany.""
The longer stay, other students note, also helps in learning the ins and outs of the culture.
""After only two or six months, you're still learning about the place, and making new friends right up until the day you leave. To experience a place and the culture, you need to see it come full circle: cold winters, sports seasons, new classes, thunderstorms, holidays and weird traditions that show up during winter break, when all the other international kids have gone home,"" Hendershot said. ""It's just like when Chipotle has Free Burrito night — if you only studied abroad for two or six months, you might miss out on hundreds of kids dressing up in tin foil. If you get to see it though — it's just one more thing that makes a place special and memorable.""
Angus has lived abroad as a Fulbright teaching assistant in Andorra for a year and last month returned from a six-week summer program in Paris, France.
""It's like this past summer, you finally start getting into a routine, used to the transportation, way of life, the food; time goes by so fast and it's already time to go home,"" she said. ""If you live abroad for longer you feel less like a tourist and more like someone who actually lives there.""
Many students choose summer programs because they're less expensive than the semester or the full year options.
""Now with education being so expensive they find summer is easier. It's going to be over $30,000 not including spending money (for a full year) so it's more popular to go abroad during summer,"" Angus said. ""They feel more like tourists but it's the nature of the beast, they have to go for a short period of time because it's cheaper.""
Living abroad, despite the great experience, can still be taxing on students who haven't been that far from home for so long.
""Being away from home for such a long time isn't an option for everyone, with family, financial and school needs. Other people just don't want to be away that long, which is how summer and semester programs are a great option: any program will still let you experience and learn about foreign cultures and languages,"" Hendershot noted.
Comparing other people's experiences is helpful but may not accurately reflect how you'll feel.
""Research shows what's interesting about study abroad is that you can't generalize anything,"" Angus said. ""Some will find they feel like boarders or members of (a) family, students in a dormitory won't go out a lot or they'll make a lot of new friends. In general students in host families have a better time but it really depends on the family and the person.""