Imagine sipping coffee at an outdoor café in Paris, eating gelato outside of the Coliseum in Rome, cheering on matadors at a bullfight in Madrid or even visiting a wildlife sanctuary in Ghana … all while in school. For college students who want to travel the globe, a study abroad program could be the way to make worldly dreams possible.

Studying abroad gives students the chance to live in a foreign country in a dormitory, an apartment or with a family, and attend school in that country for a semester, a year or a shorter period of time. Students can take courses in their major, general electives or study something completely new and get college credit.

Visiting another country allows students to immerse themselves in a new culture and contribute to their college education. It also looks good on resumes and provides a vital experience to help foster independence.

Start early
First, students must decide if studying abroad is the right choice for them. This decision rests heavily on academics -- if the study abroad program offers courses that fit the student's schedule and major, and if the credits will transfer. Other factors include finances, the student's level of independence and the availability of overseas programs that meet both the student's desires and needs.

Once the decision is made to pursue a study abroad program, students should not wait to begin preparations. If students start planning their study abroad experience early, they can create a schedule and course load that will allow the credits from studying abroad to transfer back to the student's home university and count toward graduation.

"The most important tip when they come to campus is that they plan their study abroad as soon as possible," said Dr. Andre Colombat, director of the office of international programs at Loyola College.

Most schools do not accept freshmen as study abroad applicants. Also, some schools require seniors to take their last 30 credit hours on campus, like at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Other than that, students are typically free to choose their time to study abroad.

"Traditionally speaking, students study abroad during their junior year, but that's been changing," said Adam Grotsky, the director of the study abroad office at Towson University.

When selecting a program, Colombat advises students to consider their independence level and comfort zone. This includes choosing between a program where the student lives with a host family and one where the student lives in a dormitory or apartment, and between a program in an English-speaking country or one that involves a language foreign to the student.

Another good idea is for students to travel to a land where they have always wanted to visit. "A student should really first close their eyes and dream," said Dr. Douglas Reardon, coordinator of study abroad at Coppin State University. Then, Reardon said, find "a program that fits their vision."

Contrary to what many people think, it is possible to study in a country where the language is foreign to the student. Many universities offer classes in English, although they encourage students to take a language course while abroad to become better immersed in the country's culture. When it comes to speaking the language, "don't be afraid to make mistakes," said Brian Souders, coordinator of study abroad at UMBC.

Money matters
Cost is also a major factor. The perception is that studying abroad is not affordable.

"We find that's one of the biggest myths on campus," said Rebecca Schendel, coordinator of semester programs and advising at the University of Maryland, College Park, who encourages students to talk to a study abroad adviser before deciding that their financial situation won't allow for a trip overseas.

Programs can be expensive, but most financial aid can be applied to studying abroad. Scholarships are a good way to fund the experience; national scholarships also are available to most students and some colleges offer them. Also, exchange programs can sometimes be a cheaper option.

Students must also budget for personal expenses, like food and traveling. Students usually eat out more than they expect, and traveling while abroad is too great of an experience to pass up. "I always tell them to take what they think they would spend and double it," UMBC's Souders said.

A passport is necessary to travel abroad. Since it usually takes a while to get one, Loyola's Colombat recommends that students apply for a passport as soon as they begin applying to study abroad programs. Most countries also require students to get a visa.

To truly get a sense of a study abroad program, it is best to talk to students who completed the same program. If no one at your school has attended the program you're considering, the program organizers may have a list of past students and how to contact them.