10 Ways to Make the Most of Your Study Abroad Experience
Sarah Fuller is a student at Elizabethtown College, who will soon be pursuing a master’s in International Educational Development at Columbia University. Sarah spent two separate semesters in Perugia, Italy, as part of CISabroad’s semester and study internship programs. Read about her tips for your upcoming study or intern abroad travels (and check out some AMAZING photos from Italy!).
1. PACKING: Don’t forget those important items.
I always make a packing list (and save it for my many trips) based on my daily activities. It’s really easy to overlook an item that you use each morning when you pack in the afternoon or evening. A few days before I begin packing, I keep a notepad and pen handy and write down anything that comes to mind or that I use during the day that I will need during my trip.
2. PASSPORT & VISA: Start early. Trust me.
Don’t procrastinate! I know I’m not the only one recommending this, but it’s really important to make a visa appointment well in advance. Anything can happen, from not being able to get an appointment to your visa getting lost in the mail. Starting this process a few months in advance will help ensure that things will go smoothly.
3. FAMILIARITY: Do your research!
Know the culture as best as you can before you travel to a certain place. Their style of dress or eating may be different. Certain ways of behaving, talking, and interacting may be accepted while others are not, and they may be very different than what you are used to. Take some time to “brush up” on the culture before you go so that you can spend time immersing yourself rather than feeling uncertain.
4. UNCERTAINTY: Deal with it proactively.
However, no matter how much preparation you do, uncertainty is almost guaranteed. Reach out! Ask a study abroad advisor or your CISabroad site director if you have questions, because it’s much better to have your questions answered than to spend months wondering why a certain norm exists or if something you’re doing is acceptable.
5. MAKING FRIENDS: It’s easier than you think, but different than you may think.
I spent a few weeks smiling at strangers in hopes of making friends the way that we in the U.S. normally initiate conversation and friendly contact. I was met with frowns and confused looks, because smiling to strangers the way that I was meant that I had something to hide or was untrustworthy, according to my host culture. It was really important to learn this and I was able to talk about these differences with other college students from the town at local gatherings. Speaking up about my confusion by asking local students actually helped me to form some friendships!
6. WALKING: Dress for comfort, not style.
I walked so much more than I do when I am at home! I was glad, as I love walking, but if you’re not accustomed to or prepared for it, then you should get used to the idea before leaving. If you don’t own comfortable shoes and are going to a European country (I can’t personally speak for other countries than those in Europe), you should get a pair. Bonus points if they’re waterproof!
7. TOURIST SEASON: Living The Local Life
Yes, it’s okay to be a tourist. As you spend more time in your city, you will become more acclimated, but at first you WILL be a tourist. There are certainly things you can do to reduce this effect if you want (like not wearing American flag-logoed clothing, for example, or not wearing sweatpants to class), but embrace the fact that sometimes the freshest look on a place can be the most exciting. Take all the pictures you want, because those and the memories you make will remain when you go home! But do your best to also get to know the local culture — besides just the main streets and American hangouts.
8. PHONE HOME: Keep in touch how you can, as often as you can.
Your family will most likely miss you terribly and may have played an important role in your being able to study abroad. Stay in touch with them and update them on your adventures, but be sure to find a schedule that works for both them and you! If you talk about this before leaving for your program, it may help to reduce pressure on you later. But remember to be flexible. You may plan to talk every Sunday, but then discover that there is a local concert or theater performance you’d like to attend. Sending pictures or writing blog posts could end up being your favorite means of staying in touch, and then Aunt Pat and Uncle Tom, the cousins, your siblings, and your mom’s friend all can read about your adventures!
9. BRANCH OUT: Make time for your own experience.
If you’re studying in a town with a friend from home, consider yourself lucky to have a familiar face to help you adjust, but don’t become too attached to that one person. Meeting new people, even fellow Americans, can add to the new experience of being in a foreign culture. You may make lifelong friends who will share your similar experiences abroad. Having a friend from home is great, but don’t be afraid to branch out and get to know an entirely new side of yourself!
10.KEEP A RECORD: You’ll appreciate it later.
Document your experience somehow: blog posts, pictures, videos, a diary… Years from now, you’ll want to recall your time abroad, and no matter how vivid the memories are now, they will fade and details will blur as you tell the stories again and again. Documenting your experiences also allows you to recall them when you apply to graduate school or future jobs.