Studying abroad can be an amazing experience to put the world around you in perspective and to learn things you would never encounter back home. Whether you go to a country that your family came from so that you are familiar with the language and some of the customs or if you are traveling to the other side of the world and into a completely new mix of people, cultural events, foods, and a completely new language, studying abroad is the chance of a lifetime that anyone should take. This post includes a few things to consider before figuring out your great college adventure—
The first thing to consider is how you are to going get there and how you’ll pay for it. Some universities will flip the bill with scholarships or possibly a work/study contract. It was my experience, though, that I would have to pay for it myself. There can be increases in tuition or room and board because of the international switch—the sister university might simply be more expensive and require higher tuition or your home university might need to off-set some costs. Long to the short of it, check out how much a study abroad experience will cost and if it’s financially worth it. I ended up having to pay for my flight there and back, my personal expenses, and the tuition for my classroom and practicum time. All told, the money was more than worth it. Professionally, people have been more interested in my time and experiences abroad than what I majored in in college or what I hope to accomplish in the future. A world traveler, as you might be seen, has a different perspective than others: they have better language skills, are generally more receptive to change, and are more creative when problem solving. Long to the short of it—your character builds when you’re abroad, and that is something that money can’t really pay for.
Another huge thing for me in my college abroad experience was knowing the language of the country I was staying in. In high school and in college I took German, not knowing that at the end of my undergrad degree I would spend more than a year in German schools studying to become a teacher. This was the ideal language situation for me. I wasn’t so intent on learning German in school that I was able to take every opportunity to speak it and fine tune my usage of genitive articles while there, but I did soak in everything I could and used what skills I did have: I listened, I stuttered as often as my introverted side would allow, and I took in television, radio, commentaries, advertisements, literature and anything else that showed up along the way. Today, I still use my German. I sing along to albums I bought while I was there (not that I know all the words, even three years later), I read my favorite poets and some prose, and when I can get my hands on the right country code DVD player I watch movies I picked up.
To the point—pick up some of the language before you arrive. I spent some time traveling around Europe and I had a much easier and enjoyable (also safe) time in countries where I knew at least a few phrases to spit out when opportunities arose. In France and Italy, I was as lost as any other tourist, and people knew it. At one point in Florence, I had to exchange some money and was ripped off. The exchange rate sign wasn’t totally clear to me and I didn’t know a lick of Italian, and the guy at the register saw that. I’m pretty sure I got 2/3s of what I was due. Even a couple words or, in Italy, a few solid hand gestures and it would’ve worked out better for me. Study up and/or practice with your phrase book!
People are generally helpful. Not everyone will go out of their way to tell you the time, point you in the direction of the train station, or what ever it is you’d stop a stranger on the street for, but there are enough out there that you don’t need to feel like you are totally alone. Again, big thing, know some of the language, even flipping through a phrase book would be endearing enough to a few people that they would use what English they have to help you out. It’s one of those get what you give things. If you go around the city you are a guest in and expect everyone to speak English and know exactly what you are saying, if you think you know just how the streets and pedestrian signals are supposed to work, if you think the world is your oyster and you can enjoy your vacation (sort of) while everyone else is working hard to get by then you are going to have a terrible time and be seen as the bane of the American image.
A lot of your trip will be one of pure discovery; let yourself be open to the new things and take it slow. Because you’re some place new, you need to be observant of the world around you before you go jumping in to something. If you’re at a cross walk, for example, and the way is clear but everyone is standing still, stand still with them and walk when they walk. Remember, things work differently there, different things are socially acceptable, so be conscious of what’s going on around you. It’s okay to stop and stare at the buildings or the environment around you, and it’s okay to ask dumb questions when someone makes and holds eye contact, just don’t do it in the middle of the road and be polite (imagine you’re with your Grandma everywhere you go and you’ll do fine).
Getting your passport. This is obviously really important. The Travel.gov website says that it takes six to eight weeks to process and get you your passport. The sooner you get them your application the better. I’ve heard horror stories of having to drive six hours to some passport bureau a week before flying to pick up a passport that was slowly being taken care of. When I first applied for mine, I sent everything in three or four months early and had it well before I left. I also made sure to make copies of it and other important documents (like my driver’s license, school paper work, and travel itinerary), which I stored in a safe place, in case anything bad should have happened.
Luggage and what to take– I’ve made a post about things to take on a study abroad trip, so I’ll just give the basics here. For a semester or a year long stay in a foreign country you’ll need more than your typical backpacking gear. When I left for a year I traveled with a few things in particular: a large book bag with a side bag as carry ons and one large suitcase to check at the gate. When you’re making your travel plans, be sure to check out how much checked luggage and even carry ons will cost. Some airlines charge for your second carry on and others won’t even charge for checked luggage (if you’re really lucky). Worst case, they charge something for every piece of luggage you bring. Just be aware of what you’re going to deal with.
Although you’re spending a long time away from home, it doesn’t mean the best idea is to bring as much of your stuff with you as you can. I have suggested packing lists that you can check out for specific ideas on what to bring with you, but here I’ll give my best advice: leave room in your luggage when you are getting ready to leave for your adventure so that you have space to stuff your fancy foreign country gifts and mementos on your way back. I knew a lot of people, myself included, who had to ditch clothes and other things because there just wasn’t enough space to pack them all.
I like to think that it is a widely accepted practice to leave things behind at the end of a study abroad stay. The apartment I lived in for my German internship (after my semester abroad), for example, had a closet full of things people left behind. I personally left a few books, a couple movies, and some generic tech I had picked up. I also donated the winter jacket I bought while I was there, a pair of shoes, and some clothes I had brought with me before heading out.
You will be living in this place, more or less, so the usual random purchases will still happen. Suddenly, you’ll want a board game to play with your new buddies, or like in my case, you will need to buy a winter jacket. Be prepared to bring little, buy some there, and come back with way too much. For better or worse, this is still travel, and the rules of the road still apply.
This relates to learning some of the language, but here it is: get familiar with where you will be. The internet, as you no doubt understand, is a vast and wonderful place full of information to help you navigate the world at large. So, spend a little time researching the city you will be living in. Check for the kinds of events, clubs, museums, shows, and places for short excursions you might be interested in. I got lucky with this in Germany. In the first days my classmates and I were there we had to register as students with the city, which involved receiving a metro / bus map, a city map, and some information about the area. It was unbelievably helpful to have public transportation routes, prices, and times before starting to discover the city.
By the time I went back to Deutschland for my year long study, I was familiar enough to do some deeper digging on the web and I found some pretty cool things. By far the best thing I found was a year long pass to all of the state museums for around forty bucks. It was fantastic. I spent almost every weekend in the art museums, palaces, and beer gardens (unrelated to the museum pass I’ll admit). It was one of those little gems that, had I not done a little research, learned a little of the language, and explored a bit, I never would have found.
Well, I hope that some of what I’ve written has been new to you. Even as I’m writing it I can’t help but think of more things to consider and prepare for, so expect more posts like this one in the future. If you have any questions please leave a comment below or contact me. I would love to answer any questions about studying abroad, traveling, or college/grad school in general.
As always, study hard!