Let’s not sugarcoat it: study abroad can feel daunting sometimes. You’re living in a foreign country with different customs and a lot of times, a different language. As someone that has studied abroad and was nervous before going, I know that hearing success stories from past study abroad-goers isn’t always that helpful. There’s an overwhelming number of lists on the internet for how to get the most out of your study abroad experience that it’s hard to know where to start and what’s actually going to help.
What would’ve helped me before I left was a bite-sized list of effective tips that would help me check off all my anxieties as if they were a to-do list. So that’s why I’ve compiled the top five tips for study abroad that I would’ve wanted during my experience.
1. Practice The Native Language
This one may seem obvious but it’s probably the most important tip I can give you. The best way you can prepare yourself for living in a foreign country is to learn and practice the country’s official language. There’s a countless number of people who chose to study in a country where they didn’t speak the language, and slacked on learning even some of it before they left. Those were the people that experienced a higher level of culture shock and didn’t get the most out of their experience. Not being able to understand a language you will be hearing on a daily basis can be very isolating, but even just knowing a few words can open many doors. Practicing the basic Spanish I needed to get around before studying in Spain was the most helpful thing I could’ve done to make me feel comfortable before and after arriving there. Studying before you leave with a tool like Babbel will help in easing your anxieties and get you acquainted with the country you’re traveling to.
2. Spend Time In The City Alone
You’ve finally touched down in your study abroad country. What now? Before classes start, most programs have a few days or even a week of downtime for the students to get acclimated. At first, this time felt very lonely as I hadn’t met many people yet. If this is the case for you, or even if it isn’t, being alone in the city during this short period was crucial to my experiences later. Of course, exploring a new city with new friends or old ones is fun and exciting, but there’s a good chance you’re not fully absorbing the city. My suggestion is to put your Maps app away and walk aimlessly around the city for a few days. Take note of the neighborhoods you like, or don’t like. Write down shops or restaurants that catch your eye. At the end of your stroll you’ll have a list of places to go and a better sense of where you’ll be living for the next few months. (And if you’re new to solo travel, we have some advice for that, too.)
3. Get Away From The Touristy Spots
The guidebook your parents got for your trip may suggest otherwise, but straying from the tourist hotspots will guide you toward superior experiences. The touristy spots are definitely worth checking out once, but the areas outside them are where you’re going to find some of the best neighborhoods, restaurants and experiences. You can find some of these places in a couple different ways. The first would be to follow the second tip and spend time aimlessly exploring by yourself. You’ll stumble upon places you never could’ve found in the guidebooks. The second, less time consuming suggestion would be to actually follow the guidebooks to the tourist hotspots and then branch off and explore from there. Either way, the more you explore, the more you’ll find and experience.
4. Spend Time With People Not From Your Country
This tip may seem like a given considering you’re living in a foreign country, but you’d surprised how easy it is to not interact with people native to the country you’re studying in. It’s comfortable to spend time with people from a similar background, yes. But at some point, you may as well be living at home if you’re not getting out of your comfort zone.
Similarly, in a new country, the best way to meet people who don’t speak English is to not speak English (shocker, I know). Assuming you practiced the native language before you left, being able to communicate in the language natives feel most comfortable speaking will open doors to so many new people and experiences. My suggestion is to go to a public space like a cafe or park and observe how other people live and interact. This will simultaneously make you more comfortable and familiar with the customs, as well as improve your language skills.
5. Travel (But Not Every Weekend)
One of the first things many study abroad-goers do the second they get to their study abroad country is book a flight to a new one. Don’t get me wrong, one of the best parts about studying abroad is traveling to other countries and cities. But, many people subsequently forget about and spend minimal time in the country they originally chose to live in. While traveling every weekend can feel like you’re maximizing your experience, I would argue that sometimes it isn’t. The best part about study abroad is getting to know an entirely different city inside and out. It’s kind of like friendship. If you try to make friends with too many people, you’re never going to take the time needed to truly get to know someone. So, take those weekend trips, but don’t take too many that you’re taking your host country for granted.