As my regular readers know, my study abroad experience changed my life. It’s where I discovered exactly what I wanted to do in life and also where I met the man of my dreams that I’m still with today. You can read that story (Falling in Love with a Local While Abroad) here!
Because of this, it’s easy to say that study abroad is near and dear to my heart. Going into study abroad, there are a lot of questions and not always specific enough answers. There are nerves but excitement at the same time and it’s all just a lot to deal with. After having spent two semesters abroad, I feel as though I’ve grasped what it is that students question before, during, and after their study abroad experience.
This is an experience that is truly unlike any other. Many students go into this not knowing any foreign languages and not having an experience abroad (which is what brings about the nerves!) To help you cope, I’m going to lay out each and every thing that went through my head and how I dealt with it throughout every phase of study abroad. Let’s begin!
Before you leave for Study Abroad
I knew I had always wanted to spend time abroad, and I knew that study abroad was the best way to do that. After I submitted my application during my second semester of freshman year, I was then asked to submit my $250 deposit. Dear god that was frightening. I was suddenly committing myself to go to a country I had never been to for four months to speak a language I didn’t know and to live with people that I had never met.
Beyond the fear was compete and udder exhilaration. I had literally just committed myself to go to a country I’d never been to for four months to speak a language I didn’t know and live with people I’d never met. It was really happening and I was the one that had made it happen.
Does this mix of excitement and fear sound familiar? If so, you’re in the right place! This experience of making yourself completely vulnerable is one of the most life changing things that can happen to you. Being so far out of your comfort zone is the very thing that will guide you to understanding yourself to such a larger extent.
When I first left for my first semester of study abroad in Italy, my major was nursing. Within a year, I had decided to stop studying nursing and start studying languages and culture. It was a complete 180. Without study abroad, I’m sure I would have been years into my career and wondering where it all went wrong and why I hate what I do every day. Luckily, through the help of study abroad, I was able to find my passion.
After you submit your deposit, it all starts going by really fast. You finish your lessons, your final exams, and all of a sudden it’s your break between semesters. It’s now time to figure out what you need to bring and what is essential to pack. This is where it gets super exciting and super real all at the same time. Enjoy this time! The excitement before you leave for your time abroad is a huge part of the whole study abroad experience.
Take time to actively think about how you’re feeling during this phase. You’ll be craving that feeling once again very soon. Take joy in the little things (like google mapping where you’re headed, making your packing list, etc.)
- Visa Stuff
It is extremely important to get this stuff taken care of before you do anything else. It all seems very confusing, but there are resources out there to help you. Talk with your advisor, google, and even fellow students that will be joining you on this experience if you received their contact info.
Every country is different and every consulate is different. I highly recommend contacting the consulate you will be working with directly after you get a grasp of the general information through your own research. Clarify exactly what information will be needed on each form and on each document. Only they will be able to provide you with the correct information that you will need to stay in your host country legally.
I’ve now had to receive two visas and four permit of stays. While I have only dealt with the Italian government, I’ve heard horror stories regarding other consulates and embassies so make sure to stay on top of this.
Do enough research in this phase to ensure you pack adequately. Discourage yourself from bringing things like hair straighteners, heels, and your favorite conditioner. Chances are you’re not going to a third world country so anything you need you will be able to find once you arrive. For girls, I highly recommend bringing three days worth of feminine products to tide you over in case Aunt Flow arrives before you get situated in your home-away-from-home.
If you are staying with a host family or in an apartment, I highly recommend bringing a gifts for your host family or landlords. The gesture will be much appreciated no matter what you get them. I got my host mom a mug with my hometown’s name and a tin of Old Bay spice. Coming from Baltimore it was an absolute must.
For safety’s sake, make copies of both your passport and your visa. If you can, send them in an encrypted file to yourself so you will always have them in time’s of need. Bring three copies of each with you and keep them in your carry on along with a list of emergency contacts. It also helps to keep a copy of each with someone you trust (like your parents) in case all other options become unavailable.
- Your day of departure
The day is finally here and you’re finally about to head off oaths incredible adventure. To make this day just about excitement rather than stress, there are a few steps you should take…
Being hangery is a problem no one should have to deal with on this glorious day. Make sure to pack yourself more than enough food. Bring crackers, some cheese, your favorite candy, and maybe something more hardy like a sizable sandwich. Although the airline often provides ample food on long haul flights, it’s much better to be safe rather than sorry.
Before you leave for the airport, make sure you have your basics of all else. Having your passport, visa, debit card, credit cards, a little cash, a change of clothes, and a toothbrush, and your flight information is necessary in every way.
During Study Abroad
This is where the excitement suddenly turns into reality. You’ve done everything you need to in order to reach this point and now this experience is in real time. Enjoy every little second and don’t for one second lose appreciation for this gift you’ve been granted.
This is a time when you can really be who you feel you are without any expectations from others who already know you; chances are you’re not going to know anyone going into this. Take that as an opportunity to shed any labels you’ve always felt have been attached to you.
There’s a lot to consider and keep in mind to get the most out of your study abroad experience. Respect towards the locals in your host country should always be a number one priority, but there are other things to consider, too!
- Weekend Trips
This is one thing that I would not plan out before you leave for your destination. Save it for when you get to your destination so you can plan with your new friends! I’ve seen students come to their new host country all excited about all the trips they’ve already booked, but then get really sad when none of their fellow students want to go with them since prices have soared.
Make sure to go to places where you’ll get to experience true culture, not tourism. While it’s great to see places like Rome and Paris, don’t be afraid to go out of your comfort zone. Go to the little towns where the dishes are made by the owners grandma. Go to places where your lodging helps fund the owner’s kid’s education. Go to places where you’ll see what day-to-day life is actually like within these various places.
While it’s often tempting to go to a different country every weekend, don’t forget to explore your host country and host city. I often see people go to all these new countries without taking time to explore the country they chose in the first place. Do yourself a favor and take the time to explore your host country. After all, you chose it for a reason!
For European trips, make sure to hit up Ryanair. They will always be the cheapest, but also the most inconvenient. Sometimes the airports they fly to will be up to 2 hours away from the actual city you are traveling to. Make sure to take these added expenses into consideration when booking your cheap airfare.
People often forget that this is actually a part of STUDY abroad. Honestly, that’s with pretty good reason. While schools and programs vary in difficulty, I can say that my study abroad experience was much more about the overall experience versus the academics. This is not to say that the academics aren’t important, because they are, they’re just important in a different way.
It’s my opinion that the classes within many study abroad schools are there to enhance your cultural understanding of your host country, which is great! It’s so essential to provide students with a worldly view, and study abroad does exactly that.
My first semester abroad, I took Italian Language, Italian cooking, wine tasting, and sketch booking. While some may look at this schedule and laugh, it helped me beyond words can tell. It helped me understand the country I would soon call home.
While most people don’t end up moving to their host countries, they do leave a huge piece of their heart within their host country when they head back home. This vulnerability is possible due to the fact that they have come to understand their host country in a very intimate way.
- The Locals
If there is one thing I recommend more than anything for your entire time abroad, it’s getting to know the locals. This by itself will make your time abroad unmeasurably that much better. Make it a priority to get yourself out there and hang out with the locals.
While you get to know your new home through the eyes of the people that actually live there, you’ll be able to soak in the culture in all its glory. You’ll get ideas on the best coffee shops, restaurants, bars, and hole-in-the-wall hang outs.
Another reason I highly recommend getting to know the locals is just to get yourself out of your comfort zone and to be completely vulnerable. This is the perfect opportunity to further your personal growth. Pushing yourself to be uncomfortable and uneasy with social interactions while abroad is the very thing that will help you grow confidence in this area.
After Study Abroad
Coming home from study abroad brings this huge influx of mixed emotions; joy, fear, discontent, longing… The list goes on and on! The most important thing to remember during this transitional period is that all of these emotions are totally normal and okay.
The process of readjusting to life after study abroad is not an easy one to say the least. You’ve gone abroad, experienced all these new things, and all of the sudden you’re physically right back where you were. It’s borderline devastating. These feelings are caused by one major thing…
- Reverse Culture Shock
Reverse culture shock is something students don’t prepare for as much. This is a big problem as it can lead to a lack of understanding on just how to deal with it.
When you first go to your host country, you’re who you’ve always been. Then you experience new cultures, meet new people, and gain a worldly understanding. You suddenly get that there’s more to the world than just the one you live in. This drastically changes you as a person. It’s important to be able to transfer back to your home country with this new knowledge and understanding of the world around you.
The best way to cope with reverse culture shocks simply embracing what you’re feeling. Accept that these feelings are normal and let them ride out. Give yourself time, but know when to move on. Don’t let this process of transition stop you from continuing on in your life and using the knowledge you gained while abroad.
To read more about reverse culture shock, check out our post Dealing with Reverse Culture Shock. You can also bookmark it for when you come back as an excellent resource!Study Abroad 101: A must read before departing! #studyabroad #travel #wanderlust #adventure… Click To Tweet