I hope your semester is going well and that you’re having a rewarding, educational, and enjoyable time abroad. Just as we assisted you with your preparations to study abroad, we’d like now to support you in making this one of the most meaningful and unforgettable experiences of your life. It will be over before you know it! I’ve been lucky enough to travel a bit in my own life, and I’ve compiled the following as a loose guide to help you along:
WRITE ONE STORY, AT LEAST ONE.
Students abroad frequently use blogs, personal web pages, and chat rooms for their own purposes. But have you considered submitting the story of a memorable encounter or “Aha!” moment for publication? There are numerous quality publications now for education abroad students (e.g. Transitions Abroad, Glimpse, and Abroad View). By recording your day-to-day observations, you can deepen your understanding of the underlying cultural system that gives sense to those events. Go ahead, get published!
EXPLORE BOTH NEAR AND FAR.
Go on, explore the area, see the sights, try new things! But don’t forget why you chose to study abroad where you did. Get to know the people in your host community. How do they structure their lives? What concerns are they facing? What makes them happy? Seek to interact with those you would normally not meet, such as the senior population, non-profit groups, minority populations, etc. And truthfully, wouldn’t it be far cheaper and easier to travel as a backpacker later on? (BONUS: Participate in at least one volunteer activity in the community, whether as a one-time only or recurring activity.)
BREAK AWAY FROM THE FLOCK.
American students move about in groups, like one creature with dozens of legs. Are you finding it hard to break away and form relationships within the host culture? Are you getting caught up in gripe sessions that focus on what’s wrong with the host culture? It is not easy to break away from the safety of the group, but give it a whirl…you’ll be glad you did. (HINT: Don’t magnify the problems. Gripe sessions should never last beyond five minutes!)
LIVE LIKE A LOCAL STUDENT.
Students often spend more money during their first month abroad than the rest of the semester combined! After the general expense of settling in, students learn with time and experience how to live like the locals. Shopping, eating, and socializing with local students is the best way to control costs! As an added bonus you’ll get to see and do things that you’d never have access to as an outsider.
SHOW APPRECIATION ACROSS CULTURES.
In the U.S. we tend to express our appreciation by leaving a gratuity, sending a thank you card, or offering a kind word. Showing appreciation in a different culture might require a new approach. In some cultures, gift giving is very important. How do people where you’re studying show their appreciation? Try to note and respect the societal norms and expectations; your new relationships will benefit greatly.
INVOLVE YOUR PARENTS BUT DON’T RELY ON THEM.
You’ve jumped over many hurdles to be where you are now: you’ve sorted through piles of pre-departure paperwork, maintained good grades, and carefully planned your academics. If you’re like most students, your family has been involved and helpful to you throughout this process. Our advice to you now is to view your family as advisers, mentors, or consultants but NOT as assistants, secretaries, or trouble shooters. Instead ask yourself: how do local students seek support?
CULTURE SHOCK IS NOT BAD.
Adjusting to a new culture can be an emotional roller coaster. The first weeks, everything seems new and exciting. After a while though, you may feel less at ease in the new culture. Working through these challenges moves you away from being a tourist and towards having a more meaningful engagement with the host culture. As frustrating as it can be, this is also an
opportunity to be critical of your own assumptions, values, and beliefs and to explore the ways in which they are being challenged by your new experiences.
And there you have it!
Again, I hope that your experience abroad is as profound and positive as possible. I hope that you will celebrate your good fortune in having such an experience at this stage of your life. Finally, I hope that when the program comes to a close, your international hosts will be able to say about you, “this was a good young person, and we are glad to have had this experience!”
Executive Director of Education Abroad and Exchanges