How to Make the Most of your Study Abroad Experience
Part 2 of “Another Kind of Green”: 15 helpful tips from our editorial intern on how to prepare for and make the most of your time studying abroad.
“Once in a while when it’s good, it’ll feel like it should.” In John Mayer’s Song “Stop this Train”, Mayer compares life to a train that’s moving too fast, wanting it to stop. He acknowledges that every now and again there comes a time when everything’s grooving. If you tuned into my previous post, part 1 of “Another Kind of Green”, then you already know that while studying abroad everything “feels like it should.” The experience is extremely amazing and provides great value to college students. It is the most rewarding, gratifying, adventurous, and beneficial “educational” step I’ve ever taken in my life. Studying abroad requires careful planning before and during the trip. Taking the right steps to prepare for studying abroad will ease your transition and reduce the culture shock of integrating into a new environment and culture. It can also ensure a good fit between yourself and the educational institution, and even more importantly the country. By keeping in mind the following tips for the before and during parts of your journey, you will be able to maximize your experience and keep on riding that train.
1. Research. The fun kind. Where do you want to go? Talk to your friends, family, and school counselors. Read people’s reviews of their past trips and experiences. Think about your goals. Are you comfortable with change and desire a completely new experience (think Moscow, Prague, Thailand)? Or would you rather stay in a somewhat familiar environment with people speaking a language you understand (think Dublin, London, or Australia). Picture yourself in that country as best you can and try to imagine if you have a smile on your face or not. Go with your gut. I chose to study in Rome because of its blend of history and modernity and because I am 50% Italian.
2. Research. Still fun. Consider a study abroad program that will simplify the entire process for you. They can provide access to housing, application to schools, the sending of transcripts, reviewing of the necessary documents before you go. They have a wealth of knowledge and resources that you can tap into, and is also beneficial from an emergency and safety standpoint. Being a part of a study abroad program also means you will instantly be a part of a solid base of other students who are just like you. They are a little more expensive than going on your own, however. I ended up choosing the SAI program because of the convenient services they provided.
3. Research. A little less fun. If you are not going to be a part of a study abroad program, find a university that fulfills your needs. Do you need course credit? Will your grades transfer to your home university GPA? These things matter. Check with your school to see if they have a study abroad program or connection with schools abroad. I ended up electing to NOT study abroad through the UC program offered by my school, and went to a school my study abroad program recommended. I took fun elective classes such as web design and entrepreneurship because I didn’t need to fulfill any requirements.
4. Budget. This will affect your entire trip. First of all, you need to save a considerable amount of money to pay for your airfare, education, housing, food, activities, trips, etc. I’ve witnessed people who didn’t save enough and couldn’t go on any trips, go out at night, or eat more than one meal a day because they ran out of money. Second, find a way that you will obtain the local currency when you are abroad. Flexible debit cards that allow you to withdraw from a number of ATMs with little or no withdrawal fees are perfect for taking with you. Keep in mind also that many credit cards have a surcharge fee for all purchases outside of the US. I brought over a considerable amount of Euros with me, and only had to make a couple of ATM withdrawals once in Italy. I also used an American Express to avoid any surcharges when paying with card (which is accepted less in Europe).
5. Get the paperwork over with. Fill out any and all forms required for your trip. Do this way in advance so you are not stressed near your departure. Passports can take a long time to come in the mail, and the same with receiving your student VISA.
6. Pack appropriately. And smartly. Don’t bring bathing suits and tank tops if you’re going to a cold place. You don’t want your attire to scream “HEY, I’M AMERICAN!” either. That can be a good way to attract pickpocketers and other troublemakers. Pack items that are flexible and match well with several other items. I recommend packing extra towels and DON’T recommend packing items you think you will only wear once or twice. Make sure to stock up on any prescriptions or favorite grooming products, as you will likely not find these wherever you’re going. I made several trips to the mall to purchase nicer clothes to try to match the fashionable Italians.
7. Reach out to roommates. It’s nice to have someone’s contact and already be familiar with a face when you arrive. Everything will be so new, and going through that with someone can make everything easier. I Facebook messaged two of my roommates to introduce myself (both of whom didn’t respond…but I became close with them once I was there).
8. Stay linked to home. Set up a way to keep in contact with friends and family from home. Facebook and iMessage are the most convenient ways of doing this. Bringing an iPhone or other wi-fi capable device will provide you access to any wireless network even if you don’t have cell or data service. A simple international phone that has calling and texting is useful for emergencies and calling people when you really need to. You can save on expensive rates by using apps such as Viber, WhatsApp, and Tango for free calls and texts.
9. Learn the language. This obviously only applies to those going to a non-English speaking country. Having a little knowledge of the language and learning a few key words can really help you out and lower your stress level once you arrive, and it’s also a cool trait to have that your friends will value. Rosetta Stone is a great option for tackling the basics of a language before you depart. I bought the first level of Italian and pretty much completed it, and found it really gave me a head start on everyone in learning some useful and common expressions. Also, I recommend using Google Maps and the street view feature to become accustomed with a couple streets around your school and housing. Once you’re there, you’ll recognize key landmarks and decrease your chance of being lost (also is another good trait to have that friends value).
10. Be open to new things. Your study abroad experience largely depends on your mindset. Go in with an open attitude and the will to experience new things.
1. Cycle over. You made it to your destination. The planning and travel is over, and now it’s time to enjoy it. Y0u may find this difficult because you are extremely tired and jet lagged. Try to cycle over and force yourself to go to sleep and wake up at the appropriate hours. If you arrive during the day, stay awake until it’s at least dark. Bring melatonin and take it for the first week. It is a natural supplement that helps you stay asleep and get the deep sleep that is crucial to cycling over quickly. I used this throughout my trip as my sleeping patterns were often inconsistent due to travel.
2. Find the necessities. Talk to people or walk around and discover a grocery store, dry cleaner/fluff-and-fold, coffee shop, bar, cheap restaurant, late night restaurant, and gym. Knowing these landmarks from the beginning will give you a general knowledge of places that will come in handy for the rest of your trip. Also, find a buddy and an emergency contact right away. Do these things ASAP, or else you will put them off and become “too busy” to do them later. I didn’t find a gym for a week or so, but my friends and I used things in our room like suitcases and potted plants to get a scrappy at-home workout (pictured to the right).
3. Get comfortable. For the first couple weeks, just become comfortable with yourself in your new atmosphere. Be yourself and make friends naturally. It’s okay if these friends mostly are Americans…you can eventually integrate yourself further into the culture and make friends with the natives. I highly recommend branching out though at some point. You will surely have the most fun and learn the most about the culture, food, and fun places from native students. The last third of my trip I really started hanging out with Italians, and it totally changed my experience for the better.
4. Research, again. Now that you’re there, you’ll start to hear people talk about all the places they want to visit on the weekends. I recommend planning these trips early. The advantage to this is that it reduces your stress and helps you save on airfare. The disadvantage is that it’s not obvious yet who you want to go on these trips with. The best way to find cheap flights is skyscanner.net. Don’t use the round-trip option. You can sometimes find better deals if you get two one-way flights. Also, coming back early Monday morning (6:00am) before class is often the cheapest option. You’ll end up sleeping at the airport, but saving a bunch of money. I still remember the four of five early mornings sleeping sprawled out across the terminal floor. The app TripIt is a great tool to use to organize your trip information.
As far as places to go, try to visit a wide variety of destinations. Coastal trips are attractive, but mix in some that have a different feel as well. My favorite trips were Ireland and Switzerland.
5. Relax, and enjoy. This is your time and you can do what you want with it. Take care of your studies, but really explore this new home and live it to the fullest. It will be over in the blink of an eye and you’ll say “I can’t believe I just spent four months here.” I stopped making to-do lists and really tried to be as free as possible. Be adventurous and try things you haven’t before. Get comfortable, but not too comfortable. You want to feel at home, but you should also continue to discover new things. I had a great time and found some beautiful sights just walking around the streets of Trastevere on my own after class.