Are you yearning to travel, but are fearful of the vast unknown?
Here’s a solution: start your journey with a two to eight-week class in the country from which you’d like to launch your travels.
Why? By starting your travels with a local class, you can get your feet under you in a new place. The moment you arrive, you will have directions or pick-up from the airport, housing, a group of new friends, and something concrete to do. And you can learn something cool, too!
But what type of classes? It doesn’t entirely matter what the class is about, as long as it provides some structured, safe entry into the foreign country. Some options include: the local language (usually the most popular and useful option), cooking, dance, yoga, TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), massage, music, art, or even a university class in a subject that interests you (History? Science?) if you are already fluent in the local language.
I’ve used this methods about seven different times, in seven differnet countries (from Spanish in Guatemala, to TEFL in Costa Rica, to Cooking and Massage in Thailand), and it always works out beautifully.
When I was 19 years old, a Junior in college, I launched my first solo summer travels in Latin America through four weeks of Spanish language instruction in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Taking language classes in a country where that language is actually spoken is so effective that my Spanish skills went from zero (when I arrived in Cuernavaca) to Spanish 4 (the top level) when I returned to school and took a placement test at my home university. Talk about efficiency!
Classes abroad also provide side perks. Besides providing me with an excellent homestay with a Mexican family and transportation from the airport, the language school constantly offered: social activities (which provided an instant circle of sweet Mexican friends), salsa dancing lessons, Mexican culture classes, volunteer projects, Mexcian cooking days, and discount group trips on the weekends to awesome sites like the pyramids of Teotihuacan! After my four weeks in Cuernavaca, I had enough Spanish proficiency, cultural skills, and friends to travel to other parts of the country.
So what about the cost of taking classes in another country? In many places, taking a course is so ridiculously inexpensive that it beats staying in a hotel and doing the tourist trail. If you choose the homestay-with-a-local-family option that most schools that cater to foreigners offer, not only will your language, cultural understanding, and social networking skills improve, but you’ll also be helping the family you stay with, financially and socially. For local families that can’t afford to travel, how nice to have a small piece of America or Europe brought to their doorstep! For those of you who want a different housing option, most language schools offer discounted hotel housing and apartment rental, too.
How does one go about finding reputable, safe courses abroad? Step One is to get the word out in every way (Facebook, word of mouth, Twitter, etc.) about the type of opportunity you’re seeking (ex: “Does anyone know of a good Massage school in Laos?”), and also do a Google search for your keywords.
Once you’ve identified a few possible courses and schools in your target country from Step One, Step Two is to try to find at least two people who have actually gone through the course, and arrange to email, Facebook, or phone chat with them to get their honest opinion of the place. If you can’t find anyone to actually chat with, Google search for internet reviews. If you still can find no reviews of the course, but remain interested, email the school directly and see if you’re satisfied with the quality of responses you receive.
The language school I chose in Mexico was recommended by my Mother’s coworker. My language school in Guatemala was highly praised by two friends who had done it. The TEFL program I did in Costa Rica had recieved so-so internet reviews, but I was so impressed with the quality of their email communication that I decided to enroll anyway, and was extremely happy with the results. In Thailand, I chose my massage course and cooking course based on hundreds of rave online testimonials.
What about length of time? If you’re just starting a language, two weeks is the minimum amount of time you should stay to gain competency, and I’d recommend a month. Some schools allow you to pay week by week, which is a nice, safe way to first assess the scene before committing, as long as there’s room in the subsequent week you desire if you decide you desire it.
Of the many courses I’ve taken abroad, mostly alone but once with a friend, I have never had a bad experience. In the worst-case scenario that you are horridly disappointed, you can always leave, and in some cases (read the fine print!) even get a partial refund.
Now, a larger version of this strategy which college students can use is taking a Junior Year Abroad. A large percentage of American college students choose to take a semester or two of classes in another country, meaning that they can earn credits towards graduating from their home university while, for example, licking gelato in beautiful Florence, Italy. My brother studied abroad his Junior year in college in Brazil, and the structured classes he took in Rio served as a perfect launching pad for him to travel all over Brazil… and later fly back to research his Senior Thesis there and travel more!
Whether you enroll in a one-week cooking class, or a full semester of rigorous college classes abroad, and whether you’re an experienced traveler or just starting out, the strategy of launching your travels in a country by taking a class works, and it works well.
Not only do you learn something new and exciting in a new and exciting place, but you gain a deeply comforting social community and cultural competency within a safe structure.
For those of you who have taken a class abroad to launch your travels, where did you do it, what did you do, and how did it go?
For those of you who are scheming to do this, where do you want to go and what do you want to study?... fans. Share it around! *