What to know before studying abroad

Luke is a 23 year old political science student at the University of Colorado Denver. After more than a year and half spent studying at two separate foreign universities Luke has decided to make a semi-permanent move overseas. He is currently finishing his last two University classes online while living in Valparaiso, Chile. Luke has just begun making his way to the online writing world. He does different freelance work and writes for the online publication – The political student. To make ends meet Luke works in tourism Luke is captivated with travel, adventure, culture, politics, economy, languages, literature, writing and the outdoors. He is an avid rock climber, backpacker and vagabond traveler. He has traveled vast stretches of South America using only his thumb and wit. His future travel plans, when money allows, include a bicycle trip across southern Asia. One day he hopes to work in journalism or international development.

I remember very clearly the afternoon of September 1 2011. The sun was beating down hot and dry as I drove towards Denver International Airport with my mother. A few hours, an awkward pat-down by an overweight TSA agent, and an overly dramatic goodbye courtesy of my emotionally inclined Central American mama and I was on my overnight flight to Europe.
Somehow that casual stop-in 6 months prior, at a plastic folding table covered with posters reading “study abroad” had manifested into a reality. Weeks of planning and saving were done. Visas were stickered, credit transfer locked down, debit card unblocked, passport photocopied, Spanish skills polished and the rucksack packed. I would travel to Salamanca, Spain for a semester of EU and Spanish politics. I felt a knot wrenching in my stomach, a tense juxtaposition of excitement and anxiety or maybe just my mom’s good bye lunch churning about in the digestive acids.
The first days in were a blur. Between registering for classes, meeting roommates, eating tapas, drinking sangria, taking siestas, and roaming the medieval labyrinthine of castles and cobblestone that was to be my home for the next few months I was shaken into awe. What was a foggy few days flashed into a few months and before I knew it I was flying back home.
If you plan to spend some time studying overseas, like I did, be sure to make the most of your time and experience. It goes fast. I did okay, but I could have done much better. Here is what I learned about study abroad.
Organize Your Own Trip!
I studied abroad through a host organization, like most do these days. There are some positives to this method. It is easy, everything is organized and planed, and you don’t need to worry about what to do when you land. Despite this I wish I had taken the other route and planed my studies independently and directly through my foreign university. My host organization (which will remain nameless) did little more than deliver a comfort blanket of other young American to cling to. This group provided minimal help with visas and charged egregious amounts to arrange meager and culturally unsatisfying living arrangements.
These organizations are an over-priced easy route to studying abroad that simple shelter study abroad students. Their roll as an intermediary with foreign universities is not necessary. You can email the university, you can find a place to live, you can make your own friends, you can look up visa information, you can plan your trips and you can figure out how to get from the airport to your new city. Remember that these host organizations are just middlemen out looking to make a profit. Do the work yourself and you will spend less for a far richer experience.
Embrace Your Surroundings!
The easy and natural thing to do in the situation of living overseas is to cling to the familiar. You will be surrounded by students of your nationality. It can be easy to end up living with and spending your time with other Americans. Although great friendships can be made this way, remind yourself that you did not move thousands of miles from home to hang out with people from your own country and culture. Do yourself a favor and do the hard thing.
Move in with locals and move in with foreign students of varying nationalities. Celebrate one another. Share food, music, art, and literature. Laugh and learn. Have awkward miscommunications and strange misunderstandings. Embrace this new living situation. Initially you will hardly know these new strange foreign “flatmates”, but when it is time for goodbyes you will jerk back tears. Local roommates will give you great insight into language, culture and everyday life where you are located. They have a wealth of knowledge and can answer so many questions. Your foreign roommates, be they European, Latin American, Australian or anything in between will bring in variety and give you a glimpse into the cultures of a half dozen other countries.
At home and in the street it is vital to speak the local language. Speak the language as much as possible. If you are live with just local roomies this will probably be the only option. If you have the mixed situation, a cocktail of foreigners and locals, it is still quite easy as the local language will likely be the most commonly spoken. If you’re surrounded by English speakers all semester your only linguistic gains will be the correct pronunciation of the city where you studied. Remember you left home to learn a new language, so learn it.
Use Your Time Well!
Before I got to Spain I was accustomed to studying full time and working at least part-time. Given the reality of University costs this is case for most students. Initially, going from working, being busy constantly, and living in a generally stress and work based culture to Spain was a bit difficult. The Spanish are more relaxed about work and thoroughly take advantage of recreational time. Many study abroad students will be faced with similar situations. Don’t let relaxedness and free time turn into lethargy and boredom. It becomes easy to take naps every day, to spend time in bed, to eat up hours in front of the computer, or to even just do nothing. This down time is, in moderation, necessary and for most us coming from the land that practically embraces stress, it is quite welcome. With that in mind do not forget to also take advantage of your new found time.
Be outside in a park or at a café with friends. Join a local sports team. Go running and feel the culture wash over you as the endorphins rush your brains chemical receptors. Become involved in local art and culture. Volunteer or find part-time work if you can. Explore the surrounding areas. Any of these sorts of activity will get you outside and engaging with the local community and city. Inside time with the laptop will just virtual connect back home. Connect, in reality with what is happening around you.
Just Remember
A semester or a year overseas is a beautiful thing. It is an experience many will never have and one that many of us will only have once. There is a depth and richness to living in a foreign setting for a prolonged period of time that traditional traveling cannot capture.
So go and embrace that. Do not try and fight the circumstances or complain about things. Do not compare things with back home. Do not surround yourself with other Americans. Don’t focus too much on drinking and partying. Instead live new experiences to the fullest. Try new foods and activities. Listen to new music and literature. Force yourself to improve you language skills. Live in new arrangements with new friends. Don’t fight the culture. Take it in and let it flow over you, negatives and positives. Have different conversations and have your views be challenged. Feel uncomfortable and roll with it. Learn to handle stressful situations with calm collectedness. Just let go and live it. There is no telling how your experience may change you or the places that it will end up taking you.

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