study abroad
Although many students are drawn to traditional tourist locations in Western Europe, studying abroad in a developing country could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (Illustration by Luca Bowles, Kingston University)

Should You Study Abroad in a Developing Country?

Spending a few months in a third-world country will be eye-opening, but it can also pose some challenges.

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Spending a few months in a third-world country will be eye-opening, but it can also pose some challenges.

As an international studies major with a concentration in development, I knew it wouldn’t make much sense to study abroad in a first world country. It would be quite difficult to learn about the challenges of poverty and instability in places that don’t experience them.

Many great programs are available to me because it’s pretty common for students at my university to study abroad in developing countries. (We have a whole school for international service.) By this time next year, I’ll be in Guatemala, my roommate will be in Jordan and one of our friends will be in Morocco.

I’m incredibly excited to study in Guatemala, but spending a whole semester in such a poor region isn’t for everyone. If you’re thinking about doing a program outside the developed world, there are definitely some things you need to take into consideration.

Realistically, the conditions you live in while studying abroad are probably not going to be that bad, no matter where you end up. Every country has regions that are wealthier and safer than others.

If you’re doing a program through your school, the chance that it’s located in a safe area is quite high. Most schools make student safety a high priority, if not for moral reasons then for legal ones.

That being said, you also have to be realistic about how you’ll handle living without certain modern luxuries. Does having to take cold showers make you want to scream? Does going without Wi-Fi for more than a couple hours send you into a panic? If so, you might want to reconsider your location of choice.

Infrastructural weaknesses can persist in even the richest parts of a country. Make sure to research each area you’re considering to get a better understanding of any first-world amenities that you might have to sacrifice.

I think the largest and most obvious deterrent for studying abroad in a developing country is any sort of serious health condition. For example, my best friend has cystic fibrosis and regularly needs to go to the hospital for treatments. She also frequently gets sick because her immune system is compromised.

Studying abroad somewhere like Haiti could be life-threatening to her because of the inadequate healthcare services. Even going to places like India or China, which are more developed, would be out of the question due to the poor air quality.

Although it probably goes without saying, it’s very important to consider if your country of choice can provide you with the necessary care or if it will make any health problems worse. Remember that relevant conditions also include mental illnesses. If witnessing extreme poverty up close is going to make your anxiety or depression worse, don’t put yourself in that situation.

Another thing to consider is language barriers. When I was in Brussels, the fact that I didn’t speak a lick of French wasn’t a hindrance at all because the large majority of people I interacted with knew at least some English. Of course, this isn’t true in every developed country, and, on the flip side, plenty of people in poorer regions speak English too. It primarily occurs in areas of heavy tourism.

Overall though, it’s more likely that you’ll encounter larger numbers of English speakers in the first world. If the thought of having to communicate in anything but English makes you uneasy, it might be a good idea to stick with more familiar countries, such as the U.K. or Australia. However, if you’re willing to try to learn a new language and are excited about the possibility of talking to locals, you can really study abroad anywhere.

In addition to language barriers, there are also larger cultural differences to familiarize yourself with. One small but important aspect is food. It’s not the biggest deal in the world, but it would be a real shame to constantly have to seek out your own food because you don’t like the local cuisine.

Developed countries tend to be more globalized, so it’s usually not difficult to find a fast food restaurant or a box of mac and cheese. In heavily agricultural third-world societies, food is often more region specific. So, if you absolutely hate rice and beans, your dietary options are going to be quite limited if you choose to study somewhere like Guatemala. Obviously, you shouldn’t let this be the only thing that deters you from enrolling in a particular program, but it could be a deciding factor.

The final question to ask yourself is why you want to study abroad in your chosen developing country. There’s no shame in wanting to go to Madagascar to visit the pristine beaches. But, if that’s really the only reason you want to go, then a vacation seems like a much better fit than a semester-long academic program.

The same is true for developed countries. If the main reason you want to go to London or Paris is to sightsee, visiting is a great idea. However, tours can be taken at any time in your life, especially since a U.S. passport can get you almost anywhere in Europe.

Think about the next time you’ll have the opportunity to live in Kenya for four months. While it might not be a traditional tourist destination, it could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a chance to really learn about the country’s culture and people.

I think studying abroad in a developing country has a lot to offer and has the potential to teach you much more than somewhere in Western Europe. However, it poses a new set of challenges, and the decision should be thoroughly contemplated. The last thing you want is to be stuck in a place that makes you miserable.


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