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15 Study Abroad Programs for Travelers Who Want to Make a Difference

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by Matt Hershberger Oct 29, 2014

Study abroad often gets misrepresented as a chance for students to take a few months off and drink and bang their way around Europe on their parents’ dime. This is nonsense. While parties are certainly an element in studying abroad, so are cultural-immersion programs, internships, and volunteer opportunities.

For those who are looking to truly change the world, study abroad is practically a prerequisite. You can’t save the world without understanding it first, and you can’t understand the world without throwing yourself into it. Abroad programs also offer benefits like cultural exchange, language learning, and forming lifelong connections to people you would never have come into contact with otherwise. For those who are interested in studying abroad not just because they want to drink in other town squares, but because they want to make a difference, here are some great programs.

Semester at Sea

The incredible Semester at Sea program takes place on a ship while sailing around the world to various ports. The program is not a typical immersion experience while abroad, but it does give its students a uniquely global perspective, and students have gotten to meet with the likes of Desmond Tutu and Fidel Castro in the past. The costs have become almost prohibitive in recent years, but the program does offer financial aid.

SIT Samoa

It’s hard to mess up a semester abroad on an island in the South Pacific, but the School for International Training’s program on Pacific communities and social change stands out. It focuses on the impacts of globalization and westernization on the communities of the Pacific Islands, and also offers homestays on Samoa and Fiji.

SFS Peru

The School for Field Studies has a Biodiversity and Development program centered in the Peruvian Amazon. Focusing on conservation and environmental justice, the program spans the Andean jungle to the Amazonian lowlands, and includes hands-on exchanges with local communities.

Alliance for Global Education Pune

The Alliance for Global Education’s Development, Economy, and Society program in Pune, India, offers homestays with local families, cultural exchanges, and an impressive array of courses on the issues that are the most pressing in modern-day India.

SIT Kunming

The School for International Training’s program in Kunming focuses on language, culture, and ethnic minorities in the world’s most populous country. The program also offers courses on tourism and sustainability, as well as a health focus.


The American Institute for Roman Culture’s abroad program in Rome is broad and interdisciplinary, and offers conservation projects, participation in archaeological digs, and tons of interaction with Rome’s incredible cultural heritage.

Adelante Abroad Oaxaca

For something a little different (and a little cheaper), Adelante Abroad runs an excellent program focusing on volunteering in Oaxaca, Mexico. The program offers a two-week intensive Spanish language training before placing its students in local volunteer programs. The program can run anywhere from one to six months.

FIE London & Amman

One of the more unique programs on this list involves studying in two very different countries: the UK and Jordan. The Foundation for International Education’s Peace & Conflict Resolution program starts in London and focuses on the conflict in Northern Ireland, and then moves to Amman, Jordan, for a similarly in-depth study of the Arab-Israeli conflicts.

SFS Turks & Caicos

Wondering how you can fuse your love of the environment and scuba diving with a study abroad? The School for Field Studies in Turks & Caicos has a Marine Resource Studies program that will change your life. 

SIT Uganda & Rwanda

The School for International Training’s Study Abroad Program in Uganda and Rwanda offers a summer course in Peace and Conflict Studies that focuses on the horrific Rwandan Genocide of 1994. The program allows its students to meet NGO and government leaders, and takes them to the Rwandan Genocide Memorial.

SIT Brazil

The School for International Training’s program in Salvador, Brazil, focuses on public health, race, and human rights. Primarily geared toward the medical or public-health minded student, the program focuses on how the Brazilian state of Bahia creates public health policies, and some of the obstacles to implementing them.

Organization for Tropical Studies Costa Rica

The Organization for Tropical Studies (which runs through Duke University) has a great program in Costa Rica focusing on Tropical Biology on a Changing Planet. The program has an intensive focus on ecology and conservation, and takes place at six different locations in Costa Rica. It is also, of course, a Spanish-language program.

ThisWorldMusic Ghana

An incredible program for musicians: ThisWorldMusic offers lessons in traditional west African music at the Dagbe Cultural Institute, as well as cultural immersion in Ghana’s coastal rainforest villages.

ISDSI Thailand

The International Sustainable Development Studies Institute has an amazing program for would be ecologists, environmentalists, and development activists in Thailand. The program offers hands-on projects, interaction with Thailand’s many indigenous ethnic groups, and internship opportunities for the sustainable-minded.

Budapest Semester in Mathematics

Semesters in Europe are not just for liberal arts majors. The Budapest Semester in Mathematics offers an incredibly well-regarded, competitive mathematics program (as well as language immersion programs) for college juniors. 

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