Studying abroad as a college student is considered a rite of passage for some and a really scary potential for others. I chose not to study abroad while I was in college for various reason, part of that being my misunderstanding of what I would have been getting myself into, but I know so many people that studied abroad and every single one of them loved it. So, I decided to ask those women what they would tell someone studying abroad to do, or not to do.
Take a look!
Susan, studied abroad in China
I studied abroad in Beijing, China the summer after my freshman year in university. Looking back now, it was the best decision I could have made for myself. After all, I’ve never gone out of the country before except with my parents for vacation. Studying abroad was a whole new different experience. I definitely made some pretty embarrassing mistakes when I was abroad, so here are five things I wish people told me before I left for Beijing on that one sunny morning in Arizona.
1) Pack lightly. The worst feeling in the world is dragging your overweight luggage through a foreign airport only to realize two months later you only put to good use only half of the stuff in your suitcase.
2) Exchange some currency ahead of time at your local bank. You will want to have some money on hand when you land in the country you’re studying abroad in. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but enough so you can take a taxi or buy something in case of emergencies.
3) Take advantage of public transportation. At least in Beijing and other major cities in China, the public transit system is incredibly safe, efficient, and affordable. The subway takes you almost anywhere you need to go and the public buses are very reliable.
4) Don’t be afraid to explore nearby cities. I wish I did more of this when I studied abroad. The one time I did I enjoyed it so much I found an internship in that city the next summer just so I can go back. If you’re already in a foreign country, you might as well explore as much of it as you can.
5) Take time for yourself. When people study abroad we tend to stick in groups wherever we go and there is nothing wrong with that, especially for safety reasons. However, sometimes we do forget to spend some quality time alone to recharge. I found that every time I did something by myself, I took on a new appreciation for my surroundings and my friends.
Lynn, studied abroad in Italy
To this day I consider my semester abroad in Reggio Emilia, Italy, one of the best experiences of my life. I’ll admit, I was a little apprehensive about choosing Reggio because it is a very small town, but as soon as I arrived it captured my heart. I had more opportunities to practice my Italian, because contrary to what I was told, not everyone in Europe speaks English. I also felt safe. There were some nights I walked the city with a friend in the dark, and I never felt uncomfortable, unlike when I visited some bigger cities. Flying back to America was the most stressful part of the whole trip, honestly. I chose to fly on the group flight both ways, and the travel agency had only given us a 45-MINUTE LAYOVER in Germany. Friends, this is not the proper amount of time for an international layover. Thankfully I made my flight, but it involved lots of running, a little bit of crying and lots of frustration at people (who didn’t speak English or Italian) not understanding our desperate need to move to the front of the line at passport control. If you are booking your own flights, PLEASE schedule about two hours. And most importantly, take lots of pictures and treasure every moment of your adventure because it will be over before you know it.
Alyssa, studied abroad in England and Scotland
My advice to anyone considering study abroad would first and foremost be to do it. It can be scary to leave your friends and your home, but it’s worth it. For people who have already decided to go abroad, I’d say the most important thing is to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. There are going to be times when you commit a cultural faux pas or embarrass yourself with the locals, just try and look at it like a learning experience and move on. For me, I ran into some trouble understanding the thick Scottish accents. I once had to ask my cashier to repeat himself five times before I finally understood what he was saying. Was it humiliating? Yes. But these things are inevitable, especially when dealing with hardcore Scots. I’d also say that you shouldn’t be afraid to be alone. There were times when my friends were busy or had different interests, but I never let that stop me from getting the most out of my experience. As a total history nerd, I took an overnight trip to the highlands to see a famous historical battlefield. Shockingly, no one else was very interested in seeing the field, so I went alone. I was definitely outside of my comfort zone, but I was able to do exactly what I wanted to do, and it ended up being a highlight of my trip. When in doubt, just remember that this experience is about you and what you want to get out of it. Don’t let fear stop you from enjoying it to the fullest.
Lauren, studied abroad in South Korea
My experience studying abroad in Seoul has taught me that adaptability when living in a society with significant cultural and linguistic differences is important. I’m currently on a gap year studying Korean language at a university program without any prior background. I arrived in Korea slightly nervous about being able to find my way around, but I found that planning ahead of time was very important. One aspect I had to take into careful consideration was the difference in social norms, particularly regarding clothing choices and presentation. South Korea is definitely more conservative, modest, and traditionally feminine in its prescriptions for women’s dress than the United States, and makeup is almost universally worn, reflective of Korea’s immense cosmetics and skincare industry. For me, acknowledging and blending in with expectations like these is a form of respect, and I was able to pack appropriately for the different seasons (Korea has all four) given cursory research online. As a foreigner who did not have experience with Korean, I wanted to make sure that I was well-received; therefore, I also made sure to study survival words and their pronunciation in advance. It turns out that proper pronunciation is very important, and having these words, combined with gesturing, some English, and some form of implicit understanding that went beyond language, I was able to successfully get around Seoul before classes started. The takeaways from this are that getting a general layout of things like cultural norms and amount of your native language spoken in the target country are keys to having a successful time abroad. Careful preparation, along with willingness to adapt to different conditions and various contexts, which takes accepting some degree of risk, is going to make your life a lot easier from the beginning. After all, you only have so much time abroad, so make the best of it by placing yourself in a position where you don’t have to worry about the basics.
Karly, studied abroad in Spain
When I studied abroad in Oviedo, Spain, I lived with a host family, which is a whole different type of studying abroad. My host parents didn’t speak any English – just Spanish – so sometimes it was a challenge to communicate, but by the end of my stay, they really did feel like my family. We still have a group chat to communicate now, a year and a half later. My advice for anyone doing a home stay would be to be incredibly respectful of your host family’s rules, clean up after yourself and put in the effort to get to know the people you’re living with. Most of the time, host families are compensated for providing housing and food, but that doesn’t mean that you can just do whatever you want with no regard for their home or lifestyle preferences. Especially because you’re in a different country and culture, it’s important to really pay attention to the family’s norms and expectations. If you’re going to miss a meal, make sure that the family knows and doesn’t end up waiting hours for you to show. During meals or just quiet time at home, make conversation and get to know the family beyond surface-level interactions. If you make the most out of the host family experience, it’ll be one of the most memorable times of your life.