Studying abroad can be a chaotic time — you’re in a very rushed head space. You need to rush to make a decision, hurry to get your papers in order, run around like a chicken with your head cut off as you try and research all the places you want to go, things you want to see, and stuff you want to do. When you’re feeling so busy and go-go-go, it can lead to you making some travel mistakes that you might look back on and ask, “Why did I do that?” Lucky for you, I’ve made a lot of travel mistakes over the course of my time studying abroad — and I’ve learned from them. Take my advice to maximize your time abroad, have tons of fun, and see the world!
This Ain’t a Race — Slow Down
I know more than most the desire to pack up four months of your life into a carry-on and see it all. It’s a good desire and an authentic one — it means you want to absorb as much as possible in the least amount of time possible. But it can also hinder you from doing any actual learning when you’re hopping around a continent with no home base, no local connections, and no real understanding of what you’re seeing, doing, and tasting. Don’t get me wrong, there are authentic ways to country hop (I think I’ve done it a couple of times), but when you’re studying abroad, it can be easy to let the culture slip by in favor of late-night drinks and early-morning parties. Sure, there are some cultures where going to the clubs at midnight and partying ’till dawn is the norm (here’s looking at you, Barcelona), but if you don’t spend enough time there and you can’t tour the city the next day because you’re too hungover and your flight leaves in four hours, well then you’ve really missed out on discovering the deeper parts of that city’s cultural elements.
TLDR advice: If you can, resist the urge to country hop and instead opt to stay local — the deeper knowledge of one culture is more beneficial than a shallow understanding of many.
Stick Up For Yourself
When you’re thrown into a group of people and you’re all alone, you’re most likely going to scramble to find friends to enjoy the city with. Totally fine. The problem can come in when you allow these new friends to dictate how your study abroad experience ends up going. This is not to say anything against the go-getters who love to put trips together and corral people to join (shout out to my fellow Type-A planners!) — but if you’re one of the people being corralled and you actually don’t want to go on a trip, and I cannot express this enough, DON’T GO. Seriously. Even though I have now grown into and accepted my personality for what it is, I admit that long ago, I was a follower who was corralled into trips that I didn’t want to go on — I went on them because I didn’t want to miss out on a fun group experience and I wasn’t quite sure what I actually even wanted to do. Those are not good reasons to join in on a trip. If those are your reasons, stay in the city where you’re studying. Here’s why: If you’re not sure what you do want to do, you will surely end up doing things that you don’t want to do. Like partying all night or following some dude with his TripAdvisor app open, perennially looking for a universally liked restaurant (hint: those don’t exist). So do some research before you go abroad and figure out where you want to go and want you want to do — then if some trips with friends line up, cool. If not, then you’ll have a plan.
TLDR advice: Don’t be a follower when it comes to trips or activities, have a good idea of where you want to go and what you want to do during your time abroad.
Take the Time to Set Goals
Is there something that you want to come back from your time abroad having done? Perhaps you want to learn a new language or cook spaghetti using handmade noodles or visit the village where your grandparents emigrated from. Whatever it is, take the time before you leave to really think about what you want to get out of your experience abroad — and then tell people! That will make sure that you hold yourself accountable to actually do it, if only to save face in front of your family. Goal-setting is a great way to be able to measure your own feelings of success about your trip — if you told yourself you’d come back fluent in French and you did that, you’ll feel amazing after your time abroad. If you didn’t accomplish it, the tangible nature of not reaching your goal allows you to think critically about why you didn’t reach it and how you can in the future.
TLDR advice: Taking the time to set goals gives you a way to measure your feelings of success about your trip — and creates something tangible to strive towards.
Embrace the Idea of Studying Abroad
Even though you’re going abroad to further your degree (it is called study abroad for a reason), you should also be in the mindset of studying both in and out of the classroom. You’re going to a place with a culture that’s entirely different than the one you’ve known all your life — that’s so exciting and there is so much to learn! Take a walk in a park by yourself, strike up conversation with your local barista, ask a professor what their favorite things about the city is… And then go do it! When you learn about a different culture — and begin to embrace it — you’re doing much more than simply kissing someone on the cheek as a greeting. You’re learning to see the world from another perspective. And that’s just about the best souvenir you could ever bring home.
TLDR advice: Dedicate yourself to learning about the city you’re living in. You won’t regret it.
Do you have any advice from your study abroad adventures? Tell us about it in the comments!