First of all, you should definitely study abroad! If you’re on the fence about it at all, just do it!
Secondly, I’ll preface this advice by saying that everyone studies abroad for different reasons, and people end up having vastly different experiences, even if they go to the same place. Think about what your goals are and the kind of experience you want to have before you choose your program. Don’t just go somewhere because all your friends are!
Where to go
From direct enrollment (the kind I did) to internships, homestays and research, there are a multitude of study abroad programs to choose from. For example, one of my friends studied abroad in Kunming, China, where she learned about Chinese minority groups for an entire semester. Her program involved homestays, field trips and a research project. Another friend took classes in Sydney, Australia and then completed an internship in Hong Kong. All three of us were in the same region of the world, but we had completely different experiences. I remember I did SO much research and talked to many, many people before finally making my decision about where to go for study abroad.
Your best resource is other WashU students who have done a program you’re interested in. I messaged some upperclassmen friends to meet up for meals so that I could ask them questions about their time studying abroad. I also messaged upperclassmen on Facebook even if I didn’t know them because that was the only way I could find out more about a specific program. In addition, there’s a list of WashU study abroad ambassadors–make use of it!
If you can, take a class or two about the country that you’re in, whether it’s a language, culture or politics class. Your understanding of the place will be that much more rich if you can communicate with the locals or if you know about the history or religious context of where you are.
Make an effort to become friends with both locals and other exchange students. It’ll be easier to get along with other Americans or other people also studying abroad like you are, but in addition to taking a class about your study abroad location, getting to know someone who is from that place will teach you even more. Locals know all the authentic food joints around town and can tell you about events that you would otherwise never know about.
Depending on what your goals are, you’ll probably want to travel to nearby countries or cities while you’re abroad. Personally, I enjoyed spending the majority of my time in Hong Kong, with a few weekend trips and one major spring break trip. Exploring Hong Kong and building friendships would have been more difficult if I were always away. However, traveling definitely adds to the abroad experience, and you have access to so many new places from your new home base. From Hong Kong, a flight to Vietnam, Taiwan or the Philippines is only two hours, and a day trip to mainland China is even possible via the subway system. Go on a trip with friends, and if you get the chance, do a solo trip!