For years, I wanted to study abroad in Florence, Italy. I envisioned myself becoming fluent in Italian, devouring pizza and pasta like they were going out of style, and soaking up the culture that belonged to 50 per cent of my heritage.
But when I started planning for a study abroad semester in college, my advisor told me that studying in Italy would be a complete waste of money. Because I had already completed all of my elective credits in high school and because I couldn't complete any of my core business classes in Italy, I would be taking classes abroad to fulfill credits that were already fulfilled. Never one to waste money, I was forced to look into other study abroad options.
I ended up being accepted into a business program in Antwerp, Belgium, and as it was the only program that would fit with my course schedule, I decided to do it. Before departing, I was excited, but was a bit disappointed that I would be in a city that I had only just learned even existed and that was known for its sudden torrential downpours. I slowly let my dreams of Italian bakeries and Vespa rides through Tuscany fade away.
Fast-forward four years later and studying in Antwerp is still one of the best choices I have ever made, and I often recommend to other students that they study in "off-beat" locations or cities they've never thought of studying in. Here's why:
There were minimal tourists.
Antwerp's tourists seemed almost nonexistent. They were there, of course, but most of the city's visitors were inconspicuous. There were no massive groups that I had to weave through on my way to class, no tour guides holding up umbrellas for their guests to follow, and not a fanny pack in sight. This also meant that most restaurants and bars around town weren't tourist traps but were authentic and decently-priced.
The cost of living was cheaper.
Less tourists meant that everything was comparatively cheaper—groceries, alcohol, daytime activities, everything. I mean, a half-pint of beer start at 1.60 euro, for crying out loud! This was fantastic for my bank account and helped balance out the hefty spending I was doing while traveling to more expensive cities on the weekends.
I met more non-North American international students.
During the three months that I was in Antwerp, I met three American students (besides the ones that were in my program). But I became friends with so many students from all over the world. Part of the fun of studying abroad is meeting people from different cultures, and that was much easier when I wasn't surrounded by Americans. Our group of friends was so diverse that we hosted international potluck dinners that included food from China, Hungary, Italy, France, and more!
You can learn about your city on your own.
Since I barely knew anyone who had been to Antwerp before (or even knew that it was NOT located in Germany), I arrived to Antwerp with only a few recommendations for activities, restaurants and bars. Not having that laundry list of "things you must see/do/eat" gave me the chance to figure it all out on my own. With a bit of research, chatting with the locals, and some wandering, my friends and I found a few great spots to get classic Belgian beers, experienced the city's world-class club scene and discovered the best areas to pick up some new clothes. This also meant that I also didn't feel pressured do anything because I'd "heard so many good things about it." With this mindset, we were able to discover bits and pieces of the city ourselves.
More reason to travel.
There may have been less to do and see in Antwerp than, say, London or Paris, but that just gave me more of an excuse to take advantage of my time abroad and travel more. Almost every weekend I was jet setting somewhere around Europe, and by the time my semester was over, I had visited 13 different cities.
I fulfilled my dream of living in Florence when I moved there after graduation and lived in the city for a year. While I was there, I worked with study abroad students, ones who were living the life I once thought I would eventually live. But it's clear that they're experience is much different than mine (neither is better or worse), but studying in a city that I didn't really want to ended up being the best choice for me.