If you read any promotional materials from a study abroad office, certain themes will come up again and again:
These are all great things, and I do believe wholeheartedly that studying abroad will help students grow in all those areas. But there is so much more to it than just those flashy selling points.
I studied abroad for the 2005/06 school year in Bristol, England. I had always known that I wanted to go to England, from the first time I watched Disney’s Robin Hood. I never even questioned the feasibility; I knew that I would make it happen. I was also always sold on the year long option. Only go to have to turn around again three months later? No thanks.
That year turned out to be a big deal for me. Obviously, it determined the career path that I would follow for five years after graduation, but it also turned me from a meek, retiring college student into an adult (well, at least in some ways). My self-confidence went through the roof, as I learned that I could navigate foreign education systems and public transport systems without any help, then I could certainly handle myself in Los Angeles. It was a freeing thought.
Here are the lessons, little and big, that I learned from studying abroad.
- Read EVERYTHING. Everything. I almost wasn’t able to turn in a final paper because I didn’t read the rule sheet for submitting papers from the English department. Luckily, they made an exception for me, but they had to call the department head first. How horrible would it have been if I failed a class, just because I was too lazy to read the instructions given to me? Super horrible. So read everything backwards and forwards, up and down. You’re a college student. You have the ability. Do it.
- Studying abroad does not protect you from danger. Having the time of your life and feeling like nothing will never go wrong does not make the pickpockets, con artists, sexual predators, etc disappear. It just makes you more susceptible to them. I was lucky and never got in serious trouble, but I did put myself in situations that could have really gone either way. It was dumb. Common sense is important.
- That being said, the world isn’t a scary, horrible place out to get you. People are people everywhere. Just as in the USA, there are some bad people, but most people are generally good. It’s easy for people (especially those who don’t travel much themselves) to be scared of a place more out of ignorance than actual knowledge. Do your due diligence to make sure it’s generally safe, but don’t write off Poland just because you’re cousin’s ex-boyfriend told you this sketchy story about American tourists being gassed and mugged. Look into the story. See if it’s true/if it’s happened recently/if it happens frequently, etc. Then decide for yourself if it’s safe for you to go. Also, remember, the USA isn’t very safe anyway. I’ve had discussions with Europeans who have said they’re worried about coming here because of gun violence. I have to explain that it really isn’t that bad. It’s all just a manner of perspective.
- Food abroad has calories, just as it does in the USA. Amazingly, you’ll gain weight if you eat cookies with tea every single day. Just sayin.
- Ask for help. Lost? Ask for directions. Feeling homesick? Talk to fellow students/university staff. Confused about your coursework? Ask the professor for help. Don’t understand in which company it’s appropriate to use the expletive “bloody”? Ask your flatmates to explain it. Don’t be proud. Just ask.
- Going along with that, don’t assume you know how things work. This one is tough for me, because I like to be right, and I like to not have to be helped. But you know, that attitude certainly didn’t do me any favors. Assuming things work exactly the same way abroad that they do in the USA is a surefire way to eventually run into trouble. Accept that early, and then open yourself to the differences.
- Keep a journal! Believe me, in ten years you’re going to want to read the banalities of your days when you were living abroad. There’s so much you’ll forget!
- Be patient. Be patient with yourself, your host country, your fellow students, your family at home. This is a new experience, and there are times that you’re going to want to zip past the awkwardness and get to feeling at home. That’s not going to happen all at once. Give it time. Also, remember that other countries sometimes work at different paces than the USA. Yes, there will be more bureaucracy in France. Guess what. You have a tantrum because you can’t be patient isn’t going to fix the situation. It will only make the people trying to help you upset. Patience, my friend, patience.
- Learn to pack and travel like a pro. Empty all your pockets before you get to the metal detector at the airport. Pack light. Read signs/instructions at metro stations before you get to the actual ticket machine. You will be amazing by the end of it. Promise.
- Savor and cultivate your independence. Being abroad is all on you. You make your own mistakes, but you also create your own victories. This is your experience, not your brother’s, not your parents’, not your friends’. Yours. It’s up to you to take responsibility for yourself completely. You need to control your safety, your health, your travel, your academics, and also your emotional state. It’s a lot, especially to the 20 year olds who have never been able to fully separate themselves from their home. It’s fantastic that you have a support system at home, but now is the time to learn how to build your own support system. This skill will come in handy for the rest of your life as an adult. Start working on it now.
- Be open. There’s all sorts of new stuff being thrown at you, so it’s easy to shut down sometimes and retreat to your room. Don’t. Be open to trying new sports, new foods, new friends. Talk to people, even though you may usually be shy. Allow the experience to change your long held beliefs. See things anew. That’s incredibly hard to do, but so worth it in the end. It’s a challenge, but it’s the most transformative challenge you can take on.
- Enjoy the moment. Every so often sit back, breathe in, and realize that what you’re doing is special. I will always remember having a casual picnic in the park with my flatmates on a sunny, June day. It was a thrown together event without any pre-planning, and really, there wasn’t anything extraordinary about it. But it was a special, happy, perfect moment, that I will never have again. I’m so glad that at that time, I was able to realize it and file it away. Every so often, just stop and marvel.
Oh go. Go go go. Just do. If you’re a college student, you really need to go meet with your study abroad office TODAY to figure out if it’s possible. Don’t just assume it’s not because you receive financial aid/are an engineer/work on the newspaper/have a significant other…whatever. I’ve worked with students in all these situations (and hundreds more!) and we’ve always been able to figure it out. Go now. This is the time.
And man, I wish I could do it again.