Before you decide on a study abroad program and location there are many questions you should be asking yourself.
Do you want to learn a language?
This is perhaps the most important question, as it will affect your every day life for the entire year. I think immersion is the best possible way to learn a language, but it’s also very difficult. For a year you are surrounded by no one that speaks your language. You will learn, to survive you have to. The feeling of euphoria that occurs when you do realize that you have learned the language, when you start dreaming in that language- it’s all worth it, but you need to decide for yourself- Is it for you?
Do you want to move around? Live with different families? Or settle down with one?
There are programs out there that allow you to live with multiple families throughout your stay- Rotary Exchange is one of them. Other programs place you with one family and you stay with them until the end of your trip. I know people that have been on both sides of the spectrum on this one, and both have walked away having unbelievable connections to their host families.
For me it would have been hard to move to another family. It takes me a long time to grow to a level of confidence with someone, but you may be different- Listen to your gut instinct on this one! It’s usually right.
Do you need to pass your classes to graduate on time?
Talk to your high school advisor to see what their expectations are. Maybe they will count classes that you take, even if you don’t pass them. A lot of schools consider the experience of living abroad to be a much better life-education than staying home and may be willing to cut you some slack. This is a bit more difficult to do with different programs like No Child Left Behind and other academic standards, as required by your state/school district. It is very important to start talking to your advisor about this as soon as possible so that it doesn’t affect you when you return.
What classes will you take?
A lot of countries outside of the USA have program tracks (bachillerato in Spanish) that get you started for a career well before you leave high school. At my school there was a Science “track” and a Humanities “track”. Both would have been good options, though I was definitely lost in my Physics and Calculus classes. It’s a good idea to know what you need to take to graduate and then to keep in mind your language proficiency, if it’s going to be in a language other than your own.
Will there be a good support system?
You don’t realize until you’re there how important a support system can be. Will there be someone that you can talk to, in your native language, about problems you may have? Is it someone you can trust with you feelings? Maybe a host-sibling that is your age can take you under their wing and be your support? Sometimes even having another foreign student near-by is all you need, but it’s a good question to ask.
My program did provide someone that was supposed to be my support system, but he was useless and I always ended up feeling worse after talking to him, rather than better. So instead my host sisters became my support system, and they were exactly what I needed!
What other important questions have I missed? What do you need to know?