Tips for students studying abroad

I fell asleep in San Francisco and woke up in Frankfurt. The pilot of my plane wished us all goodbye and enjoyable travels, and all the passengers plagued with incessant restiveness rushed to exit the confines of the airplane. Texting my family a quick reassurance that I was in Germany, and then playing my turn in a game of Words With Friends with my little sister, I collected my things and began making my way to my next gate on my journey to Budapest, Hungary. I had never so much as gone to our local mall without at least a few friends by my side, much less travel to a college on the other side of the planet away from home. But everyone I knew had left me with a plethora of advice and foreseen every detail I never would have thought of, so I felt confident that I was well-equipped to flourish on such an adventure. Frankly, much of that advice saved me a great deal of trouble, inconvenience, and the unpleasant experience of having to learn from my own mistakes, ten of which proved most helpful.
Ten Things I’m Glad Someone Told Me about Studying Abroad:
10. Have a healthcare plan
Having health insurance is one of those troublesome little details you hopefully will not notice, but—should you need it—could quite literally be a life-saver. As boring as it may seem to do compared with all the other arrangements preceding an adventure abroad, check your insurance to make sure it is valid where you plan to travel.
9. Get a phone that works in the area in which you will live
Thank goodness for this one. Thank goodness. Some of my friends who recently went on a European tour did not realize the sad fact that their SIM cards either did not work in foreign countries, or else charged steep roaming fees. Unfortunately, most phones have this little catch in the contract. To avoid having issues, by far the best thing to do is buy a new SIM card to install into your phone, or else buy a cheap track phone locally once you arrive in the country that will be your new home for a while.
Before I left for college, my thinking ran along the lines of, “Oh, whatever. I’ll leave my phone here and use it when I get back. Who needs a phone anyway?” However, my dad—in his depth of wisdom—insisted I get an unlocked smartphone with no fiddly contract-strings attached so that I could simply buy a SIM card when I got to college. I am so glad he made sure I had such a necessary device. I was always able to make calls during emergencies, find my way whenever I got lost, text my friends, chat with my sister, take pictures and instantly show my family and friends back home what I was up to, and look up train times when I was ready to go on a different adventure. Do yourself a favor: make sure you have a working phone and a reasonable contract.
8. Check your bank’s policy on withdrawals in foreign countries
I have a dear friend with whom I travelled quite a bit. One trip she told me a horror story about her bank. When she first arrived in Europe, she had no idea what her bank’s foreign withdrawal policy was; and she did not really care. She merely informed them of where she would be and then went on her merry way. In one store, she bought a sweater and a snack. A couple hours later, she bought water in a different store; and later, gum in yet another store before heading to a café and then a restaurant. All charged to her card. The amount she spent went up to about twenty dollars, but for some reason, her bank charged her over ninety dollars. Only after this incident did she learn that the bank tacked on a fee of $14.50 every time she used her card. Fortunately for me, a neighbor warned me of this sort of thing before I moved to Europe, and I was able to find a local bank that would not charge any fees when I used my card there. If your bank does charge steep fees, however, and you cannot work out any way to change your situation, simply withdraw a large sum of money and use cash.
7. Learn the etiquette of the culture in which you will live
What one people may scorn as the worst of manners, another culture deems the epitome of politeness, and vice versa. Therefore, while learning the recognized niceties does allow you to display an advanced level of respect for the culture, it more importantly can keep you from offending locals. This also applies to word meanings, since everyday words in English may sound like entirely different and sometimes offensive words in a different language. Not to worry too much however, should you accidentally commit such a faux pas; people generally are quite understanding of honest mistakes. It’s no reason to buy a ticket back home.
6. Underpack and buy what you need when you get there
This is my mother’s wisdom. I had packed my entire room into a suitcase and a carry-on—the amount of luggage my airline would check for free—when my mother peeked into my room and realized that she needed to intervene. My bag tipped the scales somewhere between “Haha, this is a joke, right?” and “You must be a wizard because it’s physically impossible to fit that much into a suitcase.” My wonderful mom pointed out that my overweight baggage would cost $20 dollars per pound over the limit, and an extra bag would cost $140. Added up, that was about a week’s pay for me. She encouraged me to take only what I really needed, and use the money I would have spent on luggage to replace what I left behind. In addition to the fact that I saved a lot of money following her advice, it provided me with an opportunity to interact with locals in stores, make trips around Budapest, and spend some wonderful times with friends during these outings. More importantly than minimizing baggage mass, forcing yourself to purchase things abroad can be a rite of passage of sorts, as you let go of the comforts you know well in order to adjust to the ones of a different country.
5. Make friends who like going on adventures
This is especially important if you are naturally an introvert. As much as you may think, “Oh, I’ll take a trip to (insert destination here) all by myself. It’ll be nice,” the truth is that adventurous friends will—both intentionally and unintentionally—make certain that you make as many memories in as many places as you possibly can.
For a long weekend that overlapped a Thanksgiving day, a group of my friends and I decided to skip a couple days of classes, promised we would listen to the recordings, loaded up a van, and took off on a week-long road trip. Some of my best memories took place on that trip as we visited as many countries as we could, and despite the swamp of homework and studying for finals that met us when we returned, none of us would have done anything differently, and none of us would ever have made those memories if the others had not been there to make sure we did.
4. Become involved in charitable volunteer work
Is it volunteering at a local school, orphanage, hospital, disabilities home, or any other charity? Either way, this is a wonderful way to meet locals and interact with them on a friendly level. It is a way to reach out and in turn allow others to reach out to one’s self; a way to learn how people of other cultures live, and their special joys and specific struggles. There truly is no better basis for people to meet and show each other mutual kindness and care.
3. Watch movies and listen to music
During my Thanksgiving road trip, we were all discussing the cultures of the various places we had gone. One guy—the Slovene who organized the trip— explained why so many people in Slovenia spoke such good English. He told us that most of the media they can access is in English; Slovenes watch American and British movies and music, and therefore learn the language with minimal effort. But this tactic has two-fold benefits. Not only is it an excellent way to begin learning different languages, but it is a way to connect with people of different origins and cultures. Media is a common ground on which people can meet and connect with others, and many friendships can ignite through it.
2. Spend time exploring the places tourists never go
Certainly take a tour of all the famous historical sites and landmarks, but remember that you are not a tourist. That country is temporarily your home. You are there to experience the culture, not the brochure. Try an obscure, family-owned restaurant or café instead of the restaurant that all the tourists go to as a default. Buy an outfit in a small, out-of-the-way shop instead of a mall. Ask locals for their recommendations rather than googling and selecting the first option. The people shape the culture of place they inhabit. Hanging around other tourists instead of locals, though still full of learning opportunities, lessens anyone’s ability to become immersed in the true culture of the nation; whereas leaving the well-toured paths allows a traveler to become part of the country on both a tangible and a spiritual level.
1. Don’t focus on studies more than on real-life experiences.
This nugget of wisdom came from a surprising source: my most serious teacher. I had expected him to tell me to work hard and do well, but what he said instead was, “The point of studying abroad is, in fact, not centered on study. If it were, you wouldn’t even leave home. The purpose of it is to experience a foreign country as you study. So do well. It’s still college. But more importantly, experience things.” Study abroad teaches in ways that no college could package into a course. It is a kinesthetic study of diversity in the human race, of cultures, and new ways of interacting. It opens one up to a deeper level of understanding for the world and the other people sharing it. My father summarized before I said goodbye and boarded my plane, “What you study and how you study makes your profession. What you learn and what you do makes your character. And you never quit your character.”

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on Pinterest