Bigger is not always better, as I learned from my own study abroad experience. Staying in a small Italian mountain village with a population of 253 was one of the greatest experiences of my life. The country was so rewarding and completely changed my view of what makes a successful study abroad. A mix of a big city and a small-town destination gives students a richer and more well-rounded view of the world. Of course, big cities are where it’s at; landmarks, museums, fabulous restaurants, and a host of other exciting things. They certainly have many educational opportunities, but they can also be overwhelming. Students with a more relaxed learning style or for longer term international stays, a small-town destination could be the perfect fit. The increased interaction with locals and the discovery of authentic culture creates one-of-a-kind learning experiences that you don’t always get in the bigger cities.
A big advantage of small towns is their local government officials, businesses, and non-profit organizations. They are usually enthusiastic about visitors and welcome the opportunity to share their city. Taking advantage of a small town’s intimate social network can have huge benefits for teachers and students alike. Despite a big city’s tourist infrastructure, you’re more likely to get the personal attention of local officials and businesses in a small town.
If you’re doing a study abroad based on business or government, have the local mayor, city council members or start-up creators talk to the students about what makes their little town tick. If your study abroad is health or humanitarian in nature, take the students on an excursion with a local non-profit to see how they help people and the environment. Get a more accurate view of real working people outside the big city limelight. This type of experience is invaluable and can be life changing.
Local businesses are also great resources, especially when it comes to food. And I’m not just talking about restaurants. Farms in the countryside give students the opportunity to taste food as fresh as it is authentic while they learn about food production. (And they get to pet animals! Who doesn’t love that?) Instead of simply dining out, local bakeries or pizzerias will give students cooking lessons, they eat what they make! These types of immersive experiences create unforgettable impressions and provide a respite from the overwhelming pace of city life.
In most larger cities, waiters and shop staff automatically speak English to English speakers, stifling an excellent opportunity for students to practice a second language. People living in a small town are far less likely to speak English, they love sharing their culture and are eager to speak with you in their native tongue. With no Starbucks in sight, the aroma of homemade coffee and delicacies fill the air and the language extends far beyond spoken words.
Instead of wading through tourists at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, hop on a train to the city of Chartres. One of the best preserved Medieval cathedrals in France resides there. Or when in Rome, take a quick jaunt over to the village of Tivoli and explore the sprawling grounds of the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s Renaissance palace and gardens, Villa d’Este. There are treasures like this all over the world. Locals take great pride in their hidden gems and are eager to share.
Written by Jesica Versichele