I swear this wasn`t staged. Welcome to Praia da Caçimba do Padre, Fernando de Noronha, Brazil.

You’re thinking of studying abroad. You go down to the study abroad office, make an appointment with Kristen Mallory (one of my favorite administrators at Claremont McKenna College), and tell her what region you’re considering and what you are hoping to get out of studying abroad. Then she hands you a list of ¨approved¨ study abroad programs.

I’d like to remind you that there are more options, but no one will hand you a list of them.

“Studying abroad” and doing a “study abroad program” are two different things. You can learn a lot abroad without enrolling in an accredited institution to take university classes. In fact, you may even learn more.

To be clear, whatever you choose to do, go abroad! It’s an amazing experience in which you will learn things that you simply can’t learn at CMC. My point here is that, before you go, you should spend some time thinking about what you want to get out of your experience and then tailor your semester to best achieve those goals.

You already are a college student. When you go abroad, why not do something completely different? Why not learn a whole new set of skills? Volunteer for a semester with a nonprofit abroad. Teach English. Create and carry out your own research project. Intern for a multinational company, or the government. Sail around the world. Be a waiter in Paris. Spend months in a monastery in Nepal. Work in a hostel and learn to surf. Be creative – make it up as you go. Do something different. Or, at the very least, consider it.

I tried both. I did an “approved” study abroad language program over the summer with CIEE in Salvador, Brazil. Then I took a semester off from CMC and spent the fall interning for the U.S. Department of State in Recife, Brazil.

I had a great time during both experiences, but they were different.

Sitting in class

Approved Program

My time during my ¨approved¨ program was fun, but not necessarily because of the program. In fact, it felt like I was having fun in spite of the program. I learned little inside the classroom and a lot outside.  The kids in my building taught me more Portuguese in an hour than my professor could in three. The friends I met when I traveled on weekends helped me learn the culture more effectively than my hour-long Brazilian culture lectures at 9 a.m.

I did the homework, I took the tests, I jumped through the hoops. But the program wasn’t worth my time, and it certainly wasn’t worth the price tag. I sat in a classroom four days a week making forced conversation in Portuguese with other Americans while looking out the window at all the neighborhoods I wanted to explore but could not.

My boss and I meeting with the mayor of Caruaru in the state of Pernambuco, Brazil

Unapproved Internship

My internship with the State Department was the complete opposite. Work was interesting and engaging; learning how to work in an office setting was new and each day was different. Then, when I got off work, there was no homework, so I could explore Recife instead of going to the library. And the experiences I had were completely different than anything you would get in a study abroad program:  being driven around in armored cars, trying to make small talk with mayors and governors in Portuguese, having one-on-one talks with diplomats, business leaders and university presidents. At the same time, I did not feel like I was missing out on the ¨cultural experiences¨ of study abroad because I still made Brazilian friends, improved my Portuguese, ate different foods, and adjusted to a new culture.

It was cheaper as well. Even though it was an unpaid internship (they provided housing), paying for flights, meals, and other living expenses was still cheaper than what I would have paid to do a program through the study abroad office.

In my case – and recognizing that your mileage may vary – for the ¨unapproved program,¨ I applied for and was lucky to receive an internship with the U.S. State Department, and I took a leave of absence from CMC for the semester. I didn’t get credit for my time abroad, but I had some extra credits from AP classes and other half-credit classes I’d taken as a Freshman and Sophomore, so I will still graduate on time with the rest of my class.

Again, this is just what I did; there are a million other options that you can explore. The toughest part may be deciding what exactly it is that you want to do. There are a ton of organized and unorganized programs that are either designed for you, or waiting for you to design.

This is your opportunity to explore the world; don’t limit yourself to a list someone hands you.


Morro de São Paulo, Bahia.

If you want to read more about my time abroad, check out


  1. Great point Nate, shame CMC is not more helpful in finding alternatives for “study abroad.” I’m glad you had such a positive experience, but it’s good to have you back!

  2. Couldn’t agree more! I took the semester off to work for the Obama campaign and then backpacked around Europe for almost two months, and it was a great decision.

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