Off-campus study is intended to deepen and bring fresh perspectives to your understanding of an academic field. Bowdoin also expects you to benefit educationally in other ways: for example, in heightened foreign language skills, acquisition of intercultural competence, experience in field research, and exposure to new methods of instruction and learning. The benefits that you will acquire depend not only on the program and the country to which you go, but also on the background, planning, and energy that you bring to the experience. To find the most suitable program, complete a successful application, and integrate your off-campus study with your Bowdoin experience, you should start planning early in the fall of the academic year before that in which you hope to study away, and fully investigate all available resources.
A program is usually a set of courses designed primarily for US students abroad, but the term can also be used for the option of temporary enrollment by visiting students into a university. There is much overlap between the two categories, with many programs allowing enrollment in local university classes and many universities offering the kind of service, through an international students office, once found only on a program. Programs also vary a great deal in other respects: some focus on a single area such as enviromental studies or language learning; some make comparatively more use of field study and less of conventional classroom learning; some offer many opportunities for contact with the local community through host family living or non-credit community-based learning; some are based in large urban centers, while others are in remote locations with relatively simple living conditions. It is important, as you research the possibilities, to be sure that the educational aims and methods of the program you select are a good fit for you, and that your choice is not based on what you see as the general attractiveness of its location.
English-speaking university enrollment. It is possible to enrol in one of many English-speaking universities (in Ireland, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, etc.) and take all your classes there, alongside host-country undergraduates. There are also some universities that teach in English as well as in the host-country language, such as Yonsei University in Korea and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The universities have their own international student offices that can help you through any stage of the study abroad process.
Non-English-speaking university enrollment. This must nearly always be done through a program. The most common model is for programs in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Mexico, etc. to teach at least one of their own courses in a somewhat US-style format, at their own center, but also enrol students for some or most of their courses at a local university, alongside host-country undergraduates. For the European languages taught at Bowdoin, you will normally need to have at least two years of college-level language for a program of this type. (Taking a Bowdoin 204 language class fulfills the two-year requirement, whether or not you have taken any other courses in the language here.) Although the program may not require you to take university classes, we strongly recommend that you do so, and Bowdoin language departments may require it; you should avoid programs that allow university enrollment but also admit large numbers of students with little or no previous experience in the language.
Field-study programs. Another common type of program is that without a university connection, but with a strong field study component. There are several such programs in areas such as ecology, marine biology, etc. (SFS and SIT are two well-known program providers), and others with an ethnographic or cultural ecology emphasis. The program will often conclude with an independent study project in which students pursue field studies based on the theoretical framework they have acquired in courses in the first part of the semester. A typcal enrollment would be 15-20 students; they are usually all American, but there is often a strong emphasis on learning about the host culture through coursework and host family accommodation. It is common for such programs to include intensive language instruction; ISLE in Sri Lanka and SITA in South India follow this model.
Language instruction. There are certainly some fine English-speaking universities on the list, but you should not assume that if you have no great language ability or background they are your only option. We encourage students with appropriate interests and needs to take the somewhat more challenging and rewarding, as well as less crowded, route of participation in a program in Africa or Asia, with no prior language requisites. There are also several programs in Europe (e.g., CHP in Prague, DIS in Copenhagen, IES European Union in Freiburg, the Swedish Program in Stockholm, Trinity in Rome) that accept students with no previous knowledge of the host-country language, although they will either recommend or require that you take an introductory course in the language, unintimidatingly aimed at non-language specialists, upon arrival. Bowdoin also strongly encourages you to take a language course, even in a language such as Tamil, Swedish or Swahili that you are unlikely to pursue in the future, as a way to better understand the culture that you are studying.
Teaching and learning. There is much variation among programs in teaching methods, types of assignments, amount of supervision and direction from instructors, and forms of assessment. All students should pay close attention to this, and bear in mind that the method of assessment of many university courses remains heavily weighted towards final examinations, and most courses offer less direct contact than at Bowdoin with the instructor.
Accommodations. If you have a learning difference for which you receive accommodation or use resources at Bowdoin, you should find out whether your intended university or program is able to make accommodations for documented learning disabilities. Many programs and universities now ask applicants to voluntarily disclose any conditions that might affect their participation so that they can clarify the level of assistance that can be offered in their location.
If you have a physical disability that could affect your participation, we would be pleased to help you identify viable options. Remember that the environment, facilities, and legal requirements will vary greatly in different countries and programs. For example, it is often impossible to renovate historic buildings to provide unimpeded wheelchair access.
Housing. Certain cities are extremely popular destinations for study-abroad students and tourists, which is likely to detract from the quality of a study-abroad experience. Housing shortages are common (at the moment, Sydney, Melbourne and Dublin in particular seem to have a tight housing market); some universities are unable to guarantee accommodation to visiting students, and if you miss out on university housing you will need to find your own upon arrival, with some assistance from the university's housing office.
Physical and mental health. Be sure that you are mentally and physically prepared for an unfamiliar environment or culture. Anyone studying abroad should be prepared for some kind of readjustment, or a loss of emotional equilibrium, when confronted with a set of rules for social interaction that are different from those of the US. The duration and intensity of study abroad make such an effect more common in study abroad than in ordinary travel (and not only in countries that are culturally most dissimilar from the US). Although program administrators have experience in helping students through difficult patches, the facilities to deal with complex problems will be limited in some countries. This can exacerbate existing problems such as anxiety, depression, or eating disorders. Do talk over your plans with parents and counselors, especially if you think that you may be susceptible to such stress.
How not to choose a program. In all of this please remember to make your academic needs your first priority, so that you do not waste energy on an unsuitable idea. Do not choose a program (or a semester) because that is where or when Bowdoin friends are applying; find the best program for your own individual needs, and avoid the insularity that would make you spend much of your time away with people you know well. Do not search the Internet for programs; you will find an enormous number of heavily merchandized programs out there, and the great majority are not a good match for Bowdoin students. Try not to be influenced by the attractiveness of a location as a tourist destination, or by the thought that this will be your only chance to go to a particular place (which is unlikely).
If study abroad does not fit your plans... Remember, finally, that for perfectly good reasons about half of all Bowdoin students remain here. It can seem as if nearly everyone in the sophomore year is thinking about study away (normally, about three quarters of the class look into it), but a fair number of those students eventually decide that the course offerings at Bowdoin make better sense in the context of their academic career, or that they do not want to miss out on other opportunities in student government, athletics, journalism, the performing arts, or outdoor activities. You may have to make some hard choices; but remember that there are many other study abroad opportunities, including summer and graduate study, if study away in a Bowdoin semester or year is not feasible.