Only two weeks into the spring semester and the frigid weather has us all dreaming of a tropical climate. Escaping Binghamton winters can be a reality through studying abroad, and 500 students a year jump at the chance. With more than 600 programs in the SUNY system in destinations anywhere from England to Vietnam, the options for Binghamton University students are vast.

The term “study abroad” obviously implies a certain level of educational involvement, so it is important to find a university with compatible courses, but the cultural experience is just as important. Studying abroad is about more than just reading and taking tests.

The challenge students face is finding the right fit.

Whether you are looking for a cultural experience or the chance to learn a new language, Susan B. Lewis, senior assistant director of international programs, said that there is an option for everyone. Some programs offer courses in English, and others have language immersion options. Lewis emphasized the enormous range of programs, pointing out the value of spending time abroad.

“It’s a key component of being a global citizen. We are trying to make it a part of the overall university experience,” Lewis said. “There is something for everyone and knowing what your own goals are is key. “

With graduation and DARS reminding students of their academic requirements, it sometimes feels impossible to complete a semester away from Binghamton. Many students think that studying abroad does not fit in with their major, but sometimes it is just a matter of planning ahead.

For example, accounting majors, Lewis said, should consider it during their sophomore year before their specialized classes begin, whereas engineering majors should consider going abroad later on after their core classes are taken.

Academics are not the only thing to be considered when looking for a school abroad. Learning about the culture of your host country is an integral aspect of the experience, too. Getting off campus and meeting local students is a key part of studying abroad.

“It’s very important to reach out and push beyond your comfort zone,” Lewis said. “Try to cast your nets as widely as possible. Join clubs and organizations, do your shopping in local stores, make a meal for your housemates.”

Megan Berman, a senior majoring in French, studied abroad in Paris during the spring 2010 semester. She said the most rewarding aspect of studying abroad was integrating herself with the local community.

“Living and working in Paris made me feel like I really got to know the city and the people,” Berman said. “It definitely would not have been as good of an experience if I had only hung out with Americans or stayed on campus and gone to class.”

If travel is a priority for your study abroad experience, location is a major consideration.

“Being in Europe made it easy to travel,” Berman said. “I made some really good friends both in France and abroad when I travelled to places like Portugal, Spain and Switzerland. Having the opportunity to travel around Europe was definitely one of the highlights of studying abroad for me.”

Gabrielle Roberts, a senior majoring in linguistics who studied abroad at the University of Quebec at Montreal last fall, said meeting local students was an important part of her experience.

“I got to see a lot of the city that I never would have known about on my own,” Roberts said. “The students know all the unique non-touristy places to go. For example, I got to see an amateur burlesque show at a historic club that I never would have heard about by myself.”

Living abroad is not always easy, however. Depending on what kind of program you apply to, there is going to be a varying amount of support. This can be especially difficult when you are speaking a foreign language. The study abroad office is available to help navigate the numerous options available.

“Make sure that the program that you are looking into is well-established,” Roberts said. “I had a lot of trouble with my host university because it was a new program and there was very little assistance available for me.”

What any student can gain from studying abroad is a new cultural perspective. How is philosophy studied in Spain? What kind of opinions does Morocco have on politics?

“Even if your school experience isn’t awesome, there is something you can gain from it,” Roberts said. “I had a tough time at university, but I became much more independent and self-reliant. Getting out of Binghamton gives you a lot of perspective.”

A lot of students are put off by the idea of studying abroad because of the expenses. But when thinking about studying abroad, it is important to remember that financial aid applies to all SUNY programs and there are numerous scholarships out there if you are willing to do the research.