Why, where and how!

If you’re a student preparing for your first winter J-term trip abroad, you may be about to embark on an amazing opportunity.

J-Term, or January Term, is that chunk of three to four weeks between a college student’s first and second semesters. Many students focus their efforts on one or two shorter, more concentrated courses during J-Term, others take on internships or study abroad.

What J-Term offers:

Most terms at school are exercises in scheduling, balancing and sleep deprivation. J-Terms are a time for shorter, more concentrated studies. Students usually take on one or two courses rather than the standard four or five during the rest of the year.

This means that students get a mental break from all the chaos of normal school life. It also means they have a chance to try something new. Lifelong fascinations and wonderful experiences can come from a month of study of a single subject or time spent in a new place.

Students also have more freedom to travel. Students in higher-level courses and students with really busy tracks to graduation don’t have as much flexibility during the semester to study abroad. J-Term allows them to stay on the graduation track and still have some time to go to another country.   J-term is an excellent time to explore a part of the world, as long as you do it safely and responsibly.

What you need to remember:

  1. Vet your study abroad program: Don’t assume the agency or university providing your study abroad program has safeguarded all aspects of your trip. Accountability standards for study abroad programs are inconsistent at best. Do your research beforehand and find out:
    1. The program’s safety record. Look for reviews and coverage about the agency outside of the ones they have published on their website or literature.  Google them with primary words like ‘lawsuit,’ ‘death,’ etc.
    2. Learn the names of the people leading your group or supporting you when you’re overseas.  Find out about their individual safety records and what issues they are certified to handle.  Background checks are highly recommended.
    3. If you are counting on earning credit for J-term classes, talk with your school’s appropriate academic departments well before you leave to ensure that the credits will successfully apply.  Be prepared to bring a course syllabus to your advisor to look at it carefully to ensure credit transfer will happen.  Get it in writing.
    4. Also, choose an alternative class in case your first choice fills up or is canceled; talk with your advisor about accepting credits on the other class.
  2. Attend informational meetings: Stay up to date with your school’s informational meetings and materials. It’s important to know what your options are for J-Term, what you need to take responsibility for yourself, e.g., travel arrangements or applying for a visa.  Take careful notes, ask questions, and start putting things in place right away.  You never know if there may be unanticipated delays in getting what you need.
  3. Save more money than you think you will need: If you are given a figure for how much your J-Term trip will cost, save more than that amount. You’re going to need an accessible sum of money for emergencies, enough for travel medical insurance and any shopping you plan to do at your destination. Also be aware of what exact expenses are included in the cost of your trip. Will you need to buy your food? Transportation? Lodging?
  4. Research your destination: Go abroad with some knowledge about where you’re going. You should also brush up on any legal or safety concerns for travelers on the U.S. Department of State website. It’s crucial that you register your trip with the Department of State.  In the event of an earthquake or civil unrest, the State Department can help evacuate you, IF they know where you are.  
  5. Get travel medical insurance: A little spending up front on travel health insurance can save you and your family many thousands of dollars in case there’s an emergency. If you need medical care or need medivac service out of the country, you’re going to want to be covered for the expenses. Medical evacuation from a foreign country can cost $300,000 and up, and the evacuation company may want part of their money up front.
  6. Prepare your emergency contacts: Your emergency contacts back home should know where you’re going and when and how to reach you.  Agree on how you will provide them regular safety check-in updates at pre-defined times.  They should also sign up for news updates about your destination through the United States Department of State and have access to your medical records in case of emergency.  Have your documents translated into the language of the country so medical personnel can understand them.  For more information on preparing emergency contacts, see 14 Ways to Prepare Emergency Contacts for Your Trip Abroad. 
  7. Get to know your roommate/host family: If you’re staying with a roommate or a host family during J-term, it’s important that you know them and they know you before you live in the same home. Make sure you know whether your study abroad program is doing background checks on your future housemates. You should also get in touch with them before you depart and share some information. Get to know their personalities and ask them how you can make sure your stay together is safe and happy. You can also ask for and provide some references, or check out their social media pages. If you have a health condition like a food allergy or a condition that causes seizures, make sure your roommate or host family knows what to do in a medical emergency.
  8. See a doctor before you depart: It’s important to visit your physician and a travel clinic several weeks before you visit your destination. It’s the best way to make sure you’re up-to-date on your vaccinations; you have enough of your prescription medications, and you’re aware of the medical risks associated with travel. Make sure you tell your doctor where you’re going and ask about any other health risks to consider:
    1. What immunizations or medications do you need to travel to your destination safely?
    2. Should you worry about the effect of high altitude on your health?
    3. Will you have access to medical care for any chronic conditions?
    4. Are you prepared to keep yourself safe from an allergic reaction?
    5. Will you need medical records of vaccinations to enter at your destination?
    6. Can you get a new prescription to take along in case you lose your current medication and find yourself in need of getting more?
  9. Set goals for yourself: Three weeks can feel like a long time. There’s a lot to take in when you’re visiting another country. A J-Term gives you less time to do it than a full semester abroad. That’s why it’s more important than ever to go abroad with a plan and concrete goals, such as:
    1. What do you want to learn while on this trip? Pick a focused study for yourself and work hard to achieve it. That can mean schoolwork, or it can involve independent study. Maybe you want to sharpen your foreign language or other skills, or gain practical experience by working or volunteering. Whatever it is, make sure you have arrangements for working or volunteering before you leave.
    2. What do you need to do/see in your destination? Every country has its must-see and must-dos. Do some research on your destination and figure out what experiences are the most important to you. Is the Louvre or the Pyramids of Giza on your bucket list? Are you itching to see the Pyramids of Giza? Structure your trip around these essential items. For many people, college is the last opportunity in a while to travel the world. Make the most of the short time you have.
    3. What work do you want to accomplish before and after you get back? If you’re a student working to earn academic credit, it’s important to have a written, solid record of your accomplishments abroad. Plan to put together a report or a log of your experiences. This not only proves that you learned something to others and forces you to be accountable to yourself.
    4. How will you keep track of your progress? Devise a system to track your progress every day. Are you learning new things? Having new experiences? Take a moment each day to chart your progress and figure out what you still need to do to achieve your goals.
  10. Pack light: Make sure you can handle your luggage. Big bags lead to fees, cumbersome travel, and even the risk of theft. Take practical and functional clothing, the correct chargers and converters, passport, visa, essential toiletries, protective products like sunscreen and mosquito repellent when necessary and the materials you’ll need to do your schoolwork. Too much more than that can slow you down.  Be sure to follow TSA rules about how some of these items need to be packed.

Pick your destination

Spend some time considering where you want to go.  Talk with your school advisor about which destinations can offer you experiences and courses that will increase success in your chosen field.   Not surprising, given the short time J-Terms offer.  They can be valuable, however, if you already have some fluency in the language and want to have a total immersion experience to sharpen your skills. Be very careful about selecting a company where the U.S. Department of State has an active warning, “seriously advising you to consider not traveling there at all.”

Here are the five most popular destinations from 2015 for U.S. students, according to Open Doors’ report.

  • United Kingdom
  • Italy
  • Spain
  • France
  • Germany

The United Kingdom (UK):   Twelve percent of American students studying abroad did so in the United Kingdom. Going to the UK certainly offers an advantage for students language-wise.  But there are other attractions as well. The United Kingdom is a hotspot for English literature majors. William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens all hail from England.  

Safety tips: If you’re heading to the UK, don’t assume that the region is completely safe.  There are continued threats of violence from dissident republicans from Northern Ireland.  London has also been the target of terrorist attacks in recent years.  The emergency number in the United Kingdom is 999.

Italy: About 11 percent of American students chose to study in Italy last year. Italy has a rich history. History and fine arts majors will find much to learn from museums ruins and architecture.

Safety tips: There are a few natural dangers found in Italy. The country rests on several earthquake fault lines, and there are a few active volcanoes in the area. There have also been reports of organized crime and politically motivated violence. Be aware of your surroundings and avoid getting caught up in demonstrations or riots. Like many countries in Europe, Italy is also at risk for terrorist threats. The general emergency number in Italy is 113.

Spain: Spain received 9 percent of American students studying abroad last year. Spain is an excellent example of how different cultures blend and intertwine their histories and traditions. Social studies majors and language learners will be happy to explore Roman and Moorish influences on art, architecture, and culture, and find out more about Spain’s regional variations.

Safety tips: Spain is also at risk for terrorist activity, and street crime does occur at popular tourist areas. There have been a few reports of Americans being assaulted or becoming victims of crime while seeking to house, so be sure to vet your lodging situation. Also be aware if you’re stopped by a plainclothes policeman – ask for a uniformed officer. The general emergency number for Spain is 112.

France: Next in line is France, with 6 percent of American students studying abroad. France is a great place to study fashion. If the business is your major, you can watch the interplay of France’s history and traditions with its modern culture in the marketplace.

Safety tips: France is in an extended state of emergency until late January 2017 due to recent terrorist attacks. Be aware of your surroundings and monitor local media to stay on top of news updates. Significant events and gatherings are potential targets. You should also look out for crime in crowded tourist destinations. The general emergency number in France is 112.

Germany: Germany comes in fifth, with 5 percent of American students studying abroad there. Are you in a STEM field? Learn more about engineering from Germany’s industries, which have been primarily impacted by automation. Germany also has many historical areas to see.

Safety tips: Like other European countries, the Department of State warns us that Germany is at risk of terrorist attack. Violent crime is rare, but tourists should be on the lookout for pick-pocketing. Avoid large demonstrations or protests. There have also been reports of “hooligans” or skinheads perpetrating racially-motivated assaults. The emergency number for an ambulance in Germany is 112. For police, it’s 110.


No matter where you go over your J-term adventure, go safely. Visit Depart Smart.org for more information and travel tips. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to help us continue our life-saving work.