Things to ask before you go, A short guide to preparing for off campus study programs

Photo by Andrew Pruim

Andrew Pruim

Photo by Andrew Pruim

One of the great things about Calvin College is all the opportunities students have to learn in a variety of environments through studies off campus. According to a recent report by US News and World Report, 75 percent of students study abroad during their time at Calvin, ranking the college in the national top 10. Including Calvin’s opportunities to take spring break trips and study across the country during Interim,almost every student has the chance to participate in at least one of these programs.

These sorts of programs offer great learning experiences that present us with new perspectives, deepen our understanding of the world and allow us to learn about others in context. Off-campus programs may force us out of our normal routines, maybe even out of our comfort zones, but in the end they provide beautiful opportunities to develop empathy for, and recognition of, others, both near home and across oceans and continents.

Calvin has done a great job of providing many different opportunities, with more than 40 programs offered on a regular basis to help students get off campus. The problem for many students is not if they will study off campus but choosing where. As much as we might like to go everywhere and do everything (trust me I know, I have participated in four different programs), it is physically and for most, financially impossible. To help students focus their search and develop more nuanced thoughts about off-campus study options, I have compiled a list of what I would consider, based on my experience, to be essential questions to ask before you go.

Planning Ahead: When is the program being offered? Who is leading the program? Which (core) courses can be taken there?

Because we are students studying in college, it is important to know how your off-campus learning experience will fit in with your course tracks and four-year plan. Even if a program sounds really exciting it might be advisable to wait until another semester or look at other options if it conflicts with an on-campus course. While you’re looking into the best time to participate in an off-campus program, be sure to check out who the upcoming professor or staff leaders are and what their focus is. Many of Calvin’s off-campus programs vary year to year to reflect the different passions of its teaching staff and students. Look for places where your hopes and goals for the program line up with those of the leaders.

On-site Experience: What are the living arrangements? Will there be opportunities to participate in culture, not just learn about it?

Given all the different places Calvin students and staff go every year, asking about the living arrangements for a specific program is important. Will you be on the deck of a ship? With a host family or in a dorm with other students? These kinds of questions go beyond just where you will put your head down at night, but include both host and personal expectations and norms of lifestyle and responsibilities. Knowing these before you go can help you prepare for potentially awkward situations and help you to be more respectful to your hosts. Tied to this array of living conditions are questions about culture. From my personal experience, the most formative moments of an off-campus program are ones in which you get to participate in cultural moments ranging from national holidays to local food. Will you be encouraged to “get out there” and do things once you arrive? How will the local cultural context be integrated into the classroom?

Student Opinions: What do other students wish people had told them? What should I not miss?

After getting some answers to the key questions listed above, it might be time to find out what other students have to say about the program(s). While everyone’s experience off campus is different, asking fellow students what they thought about their time might help you make final decisions. Maybe they will let you know something you should or should not pack or they might tell you about their favorite local restaurant.

All along this process it is important to keep one other question in mind: What other opportunities have I missed? Amid the many options and acronyms at Calvin College, it’s easy to overlook an exciting opportunity. Did you know that you can apply to make your own study abroad program? Or that there are many partner programs at affiliated schools that will take your Calvin financial aid package? I encourage you to visit the Center for Community Engagement and Global Learning (SC 301). You never know what exciting opportunities are just waiting to be discovered. I personally never planned to study abroad in Hungary, but it turned into one of my favorite Calvin experiences.