How to Ace Study Abroad!

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been able to travel a bit, particularly thanks to the generosity of my school and the programs it offers. I’ve studied abroad semesters and 3-week intercessions: The winter of my sophomore year I was in Copenhagen, Denmark studying Social Entrepreneurship, my junior year was split between studying in Havana, Cuba and Rome, Italy. On top of that, I’ve been able to visit several countries in almost every continent, learning by trial-and error that you should make sure your water bottle is empty before passing through TSA and also that packing lighter is always better. With my experience and with talking with fellow study abroad peers, I’ve been able to get to a comfortable state when preparing for traveling, and particularly study abroad. So here is what I’ve learned and what I’ll share with you to make your experience even better.


 

  • It’s normal to be nervous, not so much to be scared. You’re going to be gone for weeks or months out of what you’re comfortable with and the routine you’re used to. So yes, it’s normal to feel nervous about going away. It isn’t so much to be scared, that’s a sign to worry about. I got nervous before going to Denmark because that was my first time out of the North American continent, and internationally flying on my own. What I did was make sure I read up on the class I’d be taking, the city I would be in, what people do there, etc. I made a great playlist for the ride over and brought my favorite book to read. And I knew that everything would be fine and I would have a great time! And I did, with 20 other people I didn’t know before but that afterwards I had become good friends with.
  • Take pictures and videos all the time! I had never been too big on photography, mainly because I would forget to take pictures. But, I had to remember I wasn’t just traveling for myself but for my family and friends back home who wanted to see what my experience was like and how I felt and what I’d learned. What better way than showing them that through photos and videos. They could see I was so happy with the smile on my face, they could see how beautiful snow-covered mountains were, and they could imagine how good the coffee smelled.
  • Keep a journal, even if you’ve found it hard to do before. I’d been keeping journals on and off since I was 10 but I found that I stuck most to it while abroad. That’s probably because there’s always something to write about or something you’re thinking about, whether its how good the coffee tastes or some weird painting you saw or neat word you heard. I would carry mine around everywhere and made sure to jot down everything. That way I would be able to recount my experience better when I returned and I could read the journal when I felt “reverse homesick” like I would thinking about how soft the pastries were in Denmark, how colorful Havana was, and how soft the beaches were in Brazil.
  • Do light research on where you’re going but definitely be up-to-date on the country’s/city’s news. Especially while in Cuba, a country I didn’t know too well, I wanted to make sure I was up-to-date on what was happening there regarding elections, the political climate and any other worries on peoples’ minds. This allowed me to better relate to others while there and make sure they knew I cared too. It was especially interesting seeing how news networks worked in Cuba because they’re quite different than they are in the U.S. which tend to focus on what happens only in the U.S. or on news that gravely impacts the U.S.
  • If you have dietary restrictions/allergies, do your research and don’t listen to people who say it’ll be impossible for you. Living a vegan lifestyle and eating plant-based was not at all impossible for me while in Denmark, Cuba, Italy, or Brazil (or any of the other countries I’ve been to) all of which people had told me would be the case. There are always going to be people telling you not to go after what you want and it’s your job to find alternative solutions and be creative. People tend to see the impossible when they don’t understand or lack creativity to. It may be hard, especially if you have a restriction like Crohn’s disease that many don’t know too much about but that’s where research comes in. Look up how to say key words you’ll need in the local language and write them down on an index card so when you go out to eat you can say or just pass the card to the waiter so that they know you can’t have fruit skins or dairy or legumes.
  • Packing can be a burden, but it doesn’t have to. You can read more on this in my previous article on minimalist packing.
  • Make at least one local friend. It can be hard sometimes and for me that was definitely the case while in Italy but it’s important to make lasting world connections. But this doesn’t mean abandoning your friends from school, it’s just another unique opportunity.
  • Practice the language if you’ve been studying it, or push yourself to learn some word if you haven’t. I love learning new languages, especially when I’m in a country that requires you to speak something that isn’t English. I always pushed myself to try and order food in the local language, using my dictionaries and guidebooks, and looking to others to fill in the gap in words I didn’t know. It’s worked so far!
  • If you have the opportunity to, have meals with people. I have been blessed to have had a homestay placement (living with a local family) for both Cuba and Italy where I was able to share meals and converse with people. Luckily, I’d been learning/wanting to practice both Spanish and Italian and living with native speakers was immensely beneficial for learning. For my Italy program, my courses were taught in English so my homestay was my save haven for learning and practicing. Making local friends helped too! In Cuba, we were given the opportunity to participate in a language exchange program which many programs offer. And while I didn’t do it, my friends did and they loved it! Moreover, during lunch have meals with friends from your program or locals. Share the experience of culture and language together and talk about it. Some of my favorite memories are at the dinner table while in Cuba and sharing funny stories or learning kooky Spanish words with my family over yummy bean soup and platanos.
  • Don’t stress too much about planning everything because things hardly go according to plan. There is no need to elaborate further.
  • Be as environmentally-friendly as possible. Sometimes this is left on the back burner for many while traveling which also transcends while studying abroad. But that is a mistake because, as a globe trotter and representation of your country, school, and young people in general, you owe it to the world to act responsibly. This means bringing reusable bags when going to the market, having a reusable water bottle (LifeStraw has filtered water bottles for travel to areas where water might not be potable- it was really useful for when I was in Cuba), drying clothes by line, and not littering. Do more if you can and share those tips with fellow students. although it might not always be possible to avoid styrofoam smoothie cups or straws in ice water, what you do will make a difference.
  • Do what the locals do. Go to coffeeshops, hit up the library and art-covered side streets. Once you make your local friend (and even if you haven’t yet and have to rely on strangers’ recommendations), go wild!
  • Have a “pitch” ready for when you return home. Everyone is going to want to know about and hear your experiences. Prepare a little bite-sized pitch to tell friends, professors, and peers that goes something like … “I ate really well, the people were wonderful, I learned a lot, and it was beautiful.” Of course your closer friends and family deserve hours-long conversations, a bunch of photos and videos, and excitement on your behalf because they’re probably bragging about you. Indulge them!
  • Keep in touch with your parents/guardians. When studying abroad, you usually have access to internet whether at school or a library so even if you don’t have a functioning phone (because international phone bills are an arm and a leg), message them on IMO, Skype or WhatsApp or video chat with them over FaceTime. They miss you and worry about you. As for your friends, don’t spend all of your time chatting with them because they’ll be there when you get back and your job is to make more friends and spend time with them. If you’re in a situation like I was in Cuba and you won’t have access to the internet much, let your parents/guardians know when you will have time and schedule times for chatting. But keep in mind time differences.
  • Just because you can drink (legally), doesn’t mean you have to. 
  • Follow your programs’ rules. The last thing you need is to get kicked out or be punished for taking a weekend vacation and not telling your program director or getting in trouble for breaking quiet hours. Or booking a trip (like some of my friends did in Cuba) then finding out later you had a mandatory group trip and not being able to get your deposit back. You’re there to study so be respectful and do what you must. I promise you can still have fun.
  • While studying abroad, keep in mind internship applications, LSATS and anything else you might have to do while abroad that might need some extra planning. I had a couple of friends while in Cuba who had to take the LSAT, but because there were no testing facilities in Cuba, they had to arrange to fly to Miami and take it there. It just takes some planning. As for me, I had to do most of my visa application and program preparation while in Cuba which was very difficult. This involved needing interviews for an internship (when internet was spotty at best) and scramble to find a notary (which Cuba doesn’t have) and copy centers (which were harder to find than imagined). But I made it because I had uploaded a lot of the material to my hard drive and could use email to do a lot of that work.
  • Write thank-you emails to your program directors, facility staff, homestay parents and any good friends you made while abroad. My go-to rule is to send these thank you emails within a month of returning home during which time you would have reflected a bit and hashed out what you’re thanking them for. as for my Cuban host moms, I sent them postcards from places I was abroad in the Springtime, knowing they would love that!
  • Before you leave, write about why you chose the program you did, the city/country you did, and what you expect and hope to get out of your experience. Review this from time to time to never lose sight of your goals and strategies to achieve them. Then, when you leave and come back to school/home, reflect on your time there, thinking about what you learned, what friends you made, how your perceptions on life have changed, your happiness level, etc. This is an incredible experience and you should gift yourself the time to think about it and cherish it.

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