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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 earlyFirst, 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 mattersCost 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.

"Study abroad is a brand new experience for students and it's hard for them to imagine what it's really like," Colombat said.

The application process for study abroad programs is fairly easy. Most programs require students to submit an application form, a transcript and a personal essay. Some also request teacher recommendations.

"The application process is extremely straightforward," Towson's Grotsky said. "What we ask students to do is plan a year before they want to study abroad."

While abroad, it's good for students to soak up as much of the culture as possible, not just by traveling and learning the language, but also by becoming engaged in their classes.

"Take classes in something you would never take at home because this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience," UMBC's Souders said.

There are several types of programs for students who wish to study abroad. Colleges offer semester and yearlong programs, where students go to another country and study in a school there. Some schools also offer shorter programs over winter or summer break.

Most schools offer their own semester and yearlong programs, but if students are unable to find a program within their school that meets their needs, they may be allowed to find a program that is not sponsored by their home university. These can either be programs through foreign universities or programs through other American universities that have a campus or program overseas. There are also direct enrollment programs, where students directly enroll in a foreign university for a semester or a year. Students should check to see which programs are offered at their school.

Programs over winter or summer break are good options for students who wish to remain at their home university for their entire college education, but who still want a taste of studying abroad. These programs are also good for students who do not want to go overseas for an extended period of time or who want to intensely study something specific.

Exchange programs send a student to a foreign university and, in return, the foreign university sends one of its students to the United States. Since it is like an even trade, exchange programs are often more cost-efficient because students usually pay their normal tuition to their home university.

For example, if a University of Maryland student chooses the exchange program at Chiba University in Japan, the student pays the normal in-state or out-of-state tuition to College Park. Then the student can apply for a scholarship that can cover airfare, housing, a settling-in allowance and a monthly stipend. With the scholarship, the student can actually save money by studying abroad.

What's availableCollege Park offers 21 exchange programs and six semester programs. Each semester program allows at least 10 College Park students to travel abroad together and live near one another, so this is a good option for students who want to study abroad but still see familiar faces.

College Park students may also participate in any one of 27 summer or 16 winter programs, all of which are led by College Park faculty members. If students are unable to find a program within the school that fits their needs, they are allowed to attend a non-school sponsored program.

UMBC offers exchange, affiliate and direct programs. Direct programs let students find a foreign university and enroll in it directly. Not all foreign universities allow students to study in their school for only a semester or year, so this option requires more research and effort.

Loyola students may choose from 62 study abroad programs. They can study through exchanges, Loyola programs, affiliation programs and non-Loyola programs. The affiliation programs and non-Loyola programs are carefully reviewed and recommended by Loyola.

Loyola does not permit students to enroll in study abroad programs through other universities in the United States or through direct enrollment. If students cannot find a program through Loyola that meets their academic needs, then they can appeal to study abroad in a different program. "When they come to Loyola, they are expected to attend a Loyola program," Colombat said.

Coppin State offers students opportunities to work overseas as research assistants for faculty members, study in faculty-led opportunities abroad or choose their own non-school sponsored program. "We're developing some exchange programs in Egypt ... and Barbados," Reardon said.

Goucher has a degree requirement that makes it mandatory for students to study abroad, making it the first college in the United States to do so. To aid students with their time abroad, Goucher will give each student a $1,200 voucher to help finance the expenses.

Besides semester, yearlong and summer programs, Goucher allows students a unique study abroad opportunity with its Intensive Course Abroad program. Students deciding to study abroad this way will select one of 18 three- or four-week courses. These include discovering opera in Italy, getting a first-hand look at what it's really like at the United States-Mexico border, learning glassblowing in Romania and exploring coral reefs in Honduras to learn about marine biology.

Towson offers semester, summer and "minimester" programs. Taking place over a few weeks in December or January, "minimester" programs include studying Caribbean culture in Jamaica and learning about corporate communications in Scotland. Some Towson semester programs allow students to intern or teach abroad. Towson encourages students to seek non-school sponsored programs if they cannot find a program at Towson that fits their needs.

Students at Johns Hopkins University may participate in the school's programs, directly enroll in a foreign university or enroll in a U.S. college-sponsored program in a foreign country. Johns Hopkins programs include locations in Turkey, France and Italy.

Morgan State University does not currently offer study abroad programs unless students have a Fulbright scholarship, a government scholarship that offers opportunities to study abroad. The university is working on creating a study abroad program, according to Dr. Zekeh Gbotokuma, director of the center for global studies at Morgan.

Any of these study abroad programs will allow students to explore a new culture, make new friends and see the world. Studying abroad is a great opportunity for both educational and personal growth. Not only will students learn in a foreign country, but they will also create lifelong memories.

Tips from study abroad advisers

"Explore, explore, explore." - Brian Souders, coordinator of study abroad at UMBC

"Drink deeply. It's an experience that you will remember for the rest of your life." - Dr. Douglas Reardon, coordinator of study abroad at Coppin State College

"Leave your laptops at home and your cell phones in the drawer and dive into the culture." - Adam Grotsky, director of the study abroad office at Towson University

"Throw yourself into it." - Rebecca Schendel, coordinator of semester programs and advising at the University of Maryland College Park

"Venture out beyond the circle of American students on the program. Make friends. Find a regular seat at the sidewalk café in Paris and go there every morning." - Reardon

It's important that you "be sensitive, be open, [and] understand culture shock." - Eric Singer, associate dean of international studies at Goucher College

Don't travel so much that you neglect your host country. "I recommend students get to know the country they're in." - Grotsky

Live with a family and stay for an entire year. - Ruth Aranow, study abroad adviser and academic adviser at Johns Hopkins University

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