Who my study abroad students imagine they’ll be hanging out with:
Who they’ll actually be hanging out with:
In Dartmoor National Park, probably within two weeks of my the beginning of my program. So tentative and new to it all!
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.
Thumbs up to study abroad!
I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it on this blog, but for the past five years I’ve worked in the world of study abroad, mostly as a counselor sending college students to the UK and Ireland. This is my last year in this position as I get ready to head to grad school, so over the next week or two, I’d like to share what I learned in this position. I won’t have any more students to give unsolicited advice to, so you all are going to have to hear it instead!
As the end of the school year nears, I get really busy giving orientations to all my students who will be flying out in the next few months. And as my students will tell you, my FAVORITE thing to talk about during these orientations is packing! Yay! Packing!
I really learned how to pack when I studied abroad for a year in west England. Fellow Americans — we are so fricking spoiled when it comes to carry-on luggage allowances. It’s ridiculous. Compared to European budget airlines (the only airlines study abroad students can afford to use) carry-on allowances, American seem to carry on steamer trunks. During my year abroad, I got very good, very quickly about whittling down what I needed to the bare essentials in order to appease the RyanAir/EasyJet gods. And it’s really not all that bad!
Packing light is an art. A glorious, underutilized art. And here’s how I do it.
- Really consider your destination. If you’re moving to the UK for a year, you better be bringing a warm jacket. If you’re going on a beach vacation to Bali, at least 2 bathing suits should be packed. A weekend in San Francisco? Three weeks in rural New Zealand? A month in Tokyo? All of these situations bring very different packing challenges, so make sure to really think about the destination and what it means for your clothing choices.
- Do it in the smallest bag possible. If you’re going for a weekend/week, this should be in a small carry-on. IF you’re going for two weeks to a month, maybe a carry-on and one normal sized checked suitcase. You’re studying abroad for a semester to a year? Bring the two checked bags, but don’t fill them up all the way. Don’t even give yourself the option of bringing a larger bag, unless you know for a fact that you’ll be picking up large items at your destination. I always pack to fill the bag, so if I bring a smaller bag, I bring less. Bam. Done.
- Really think about what you wear on a regular basis. For me, this is jeans and a variety of tops. Am I going to all of a sudden start wearing all those cute dresses languishing in my closet when I’m abroad? Nope. Probably not. So, I don’t need to bring them. Only bring what you wear a lot. And remember, laundromats exist all over the world. Even if you’re going abroad for 9 months, you only really need to bring enough clothes for two weeks. You wash them! Amazing concept, I know. This is why they pay me the big bucks.
- Shoes. You really really don’t need that many. Come on. Bring a pair or two that can be worn for most events (ie ballet flats, Toms, whateva), then really evaluate what you’ll be doing otherwise. If you’re going out, just bring one pair of go with everything, comfy heels. Going to the beach? One pair of sandals. Hiking? One pair of tennis shoes. Really, you should be bringing MAX three pairs of shoes if you’re going away for a week, and if you’re bringing that many, you should have a damn good reason for each pair of shoes. If you’re going away for a year, then you can bring up to five…that’s my arbitrary rule. But really. Just think about what you’re doing. Don’t just throw them in because you might, maybe wear them.
- Underwear should be rolled and stuffed into shoes. That’s where it lives when you’re packing light. You can also pack it last and push it into any nooks and crannies you have left in your suitcase. And always evaluate what type of underwear you’ll need with the outfits you’ve chosen! You’re wearing a strapless dress, you better bring that strapless bra!
- Accessories! You know what is small and easy to pack and makes every outfit better? Jewelry! Bring it, wear it, love it. You may want to leave the family heirlooms at home though…
- ROLL YOUR CLOTHES. Doing this won’t let you get around the weight allowance, but you will be able to fit more items in your suitcase. Plus, they will only be wrinkled in a rumply charming way, not in a “I’ve been living out of a suitcase for three weeks, don’t get near me” way.
- Extras. There may be special things that you need for this weekend trip, like a bathing suit or running clothes or something. Just make sure you have a reason to use the extra you’re bringing. Don’t bring a bathing suit just because there’s a 10% chance you may go to the pool. PACK WITH INTENTION.
- If you’re a big reader like me, I strongly recommend you bring an e-reader with you for any trip that’s longer than two weeks. If you don’t, you may end up being stuck with having to read whatever book was left at the hostel that’s in English. This is why I read Anna Karenina on the beaches of Thailand. Great book. Great beach read? Not so much. An e-reader is so small and light it takes up almost zero space in your luggage, plus you can have as many books as you want on there. Love it.
- Don’t forget your plug and voltage converters. Different countries use different plugs and often have higher voltage than the US. Many modern electronics will convert voltage for you, which will be noted on the plugs. Check before you bring along a voltage converter. Wondering which plug your destination uses? Here you go!
- Cooking with metrics is pretty different, so if you’re going to be living abroad for an extended amount of time and cooking for yourself, bringing your own set of teaspoons and measuring cups can be infinitely helpful. Or you can learn the metric style of cooking and weigh all your ingredients…how un-American.
- Toiletries! You probably don’t need a massive bottle of shampoo and conditioner. Put them in smaller bottles so you don’t have to lug them around in their original packaging. I love Lush Cosmetics shampoo bars for traveling. They take up so little space and work just fine with my hair. As with clothing, really determine what you’ll be doing, and bring the make-up to match the occasions. You don’t need to bring your whole make-up bag. Promise.
- And, to sound like an overworried study abroad counselor, make sure to bring copies of all your paperwork! You know what sucks? Losing your passport. You know what sucks sooooo much more? Losing your passport and not having a copy of it. For some reason, US embassies can make new passports a lot quicker when they have a copy of the old one. Always have one on you. You should also have copies of welcome letters, visa letters, medical documentation…basically anything that would be really hard to replace if it went missing.
So yep, that’s my advice. Really, it boils down to pack light and with intention. Most countries will have whatever you left behind, or at least a decent replacement for it, so don’t stress too much/attempt to bring your entire closet. It all works out in the end.