While planning a study abroad experience, it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that you are guaranteed to have the experience of a lifetime and that language acquisition and cultural immersion is automatic. That study abroad just comes out of the box that way. What you are not always being told is that it’s work on your end that all you are being provided is an opportunity, not final end results of what you get out of the experience. Your study abroad experience may not be the perfect fairly-tale romance some may claim it is, but it will be an experience that at the very least you can learn from and that can mold you as a person. Whether in the end you consider it an experience worth repeating or not, it will be an experience worth having.
What I want to share with you is my personal advice on how to get the most out of your time abroad, wherever you choose to go. My advice comes from personal experience and from observation in working with people to develop their study abroad programs as well as speaking with them during and after their programs. My advice may not be the end all be all of advice on studying abroad, but I hope it will provide all of you considering, planning, or on study abroad programs with some points of reflection and mental and emotional preparation.
1. Verse yourself in the culture before you leave.
Sure, it’s extra studying to do, but do it. You won’t learn everything about the culture of a country from a book, but you can go in at least educated on the basics. Know things as simple as the tipping culture, how to greet someone, what dress expectations are, what food is the norm, etc.
2. Go in with zero expectations.
We’ve all said it at some point, and I say it to you now, just go with the flow. No two abroad experiences are the same. What cousin Erica experienced while studying in Cusco, Peru will be a completely unique experience to yours going two years later. Every experience is personal and how you take in and interpret the experience depends on you as an individual.
3. Prepare to be homesick, and prepare for culture shock to intensify it.
Every one of your senses is alive when you are abroad. Nothing is exactly the same as back home. Houses look different, the food being served is different, the language is different, the list goes on. Smells, sights, sounds, all of it is foreign to you both mentally and physically. Don’t despair and don’t let these feelings take control and overwhelm you. Call home if you need to, talk to the in-country support you have, and remind yourself that your time abroad is limited.
4. Go in with a go-getter attitude.
Being able to go home and tell all your friends and family about how life in Guatemala has forever changed you or how you fell in love with the country and its people doesn’t happen without effort and receptiveness on your part. Cultural understanding, language acquisition, and self-discovery don’t just happen while standing still, it’s not like the guarantee that you’ll be hit by a car if you stand in the road long enough. You should actively seek to immerse yourself and engage yourself in the local culture and language. If you don’t take initiative in your service learning project, internship, or education abroad, you won’t gain the most from it that you can.
5. Exit your comfort zone.
Going abroad on some level for all of us is uncomfortable. That’s a good thing. A great thing in fact. Being outside your comfort zone will allow you to be more receptive to a level of immersion you couldn’t otherwise expect and a level of personal growth that you’ll appreciate.
6. Find the locals once you’re there.
You are going abroad to gain something, you won’t do that by surrounding yourself with just other people from your home country. Whether you spend time with your host family, make friends with the barista at the cafe around the corner, or join the group salsa classes just down the street, make an effort and put yourself out there. You will never truly experience the country until you know its people.
7. Reflect on it all, and not just at the end.
I can’t stress enough to document your life abroad. It’s not just about documenting the memories, but about how you felt in those moments and how you are changing, how your world view is changing. Everything is new, and writing and reflecting on even the seemingly insignificant things like the smell of the lobby of your host family’s apartment building bring a deeper appreciation for everything you are experiencing.
8. Remember the world isn’t perfect anywhere, even at home.
This is a hard one, so many of us live inside small little ‘safe’ bubbles if you will. The reason they are safe to us is because they are familiar, and when you go into a foreign environment things can feel more threatening. Petty theft is one of the most common things to occur around the world, and plenty of study abroad students and travelers are affected by it. I bring this up to say, if it happens to you, just remember it could happen anywhere. Whether you are walking down the streets of Chicago, taking the metro in Madrid, or taking in the sun on the beaches of Colombia. Don’t let a small set back like getting your passport stolen take away from everything you have experienced to that point and will experience moving forward. Take it as a lesson learned.
9. Anticipate some reverse culture shock.
Even if you were homesick during your time abroad, after a semester or two the local culture becomes a part of you on some level. Just as all your senses were heightened going into a foreign country, they can be equally as heightened upon your return to your home country. Sights, sounds, and smells have all changed again and they may feel foreign to you in some ways even though you experienced them all your life prior to studying abroad. You will readjust to your surroundings, this I can promise, but you may never view them the same again.