Blog

What to Expect When You Think You Know What to Expect

Some students take their first step beyond U.S. borders with study abroad; the program serves as an introduction to the world of visas, flights, and currency exchange. To others, the experience may seem largely familiar: perhaps they’ve traveled frequently, or at least enough to feel that they know their way around an airport.13502782_1019568144765845_1104649559219376947_o

I fit in the second group: I’ve moved countless times, lived abroad, and traveled extensively.
That’s why my preparing for my first study abroad program to New Zealand didn’t phase me: I thought I was a professional at handling packing, jet lag, and culture shock. Despite all my ‘experience,’ each of my study abroad programs have surprised me with their unique and unexpected challenges.

In New Zealand I was frustrated with my classmates. Though I was hyper sensitive to the Americans stereotypes that exist abroad, many of my classmates were unaware and seemed to only confirm them. The volume of our group often drew stares from the local community. To them, my aversion to the noise seemed like a lack of enthusiasm for the trip as a whole. Our perspectives were different, and I had to understand and adjust.

I learned to practice patience and empathy with my companions, and this is a lesson I continue to use in all of my travels.

TAJ

When I traveled to Spain I was confident that language wouldn’t be a problem for me. I had survived in Germany for 8 years without much German, and I felt I could manage this language barrier as well. Within ten minutes of landing I was being bombarded with questions in Spanish and I had a moment of panic. Although English is widespread in Europe, that does not guarantee that the people around you are going to use it. Bracing myself for that sort of shock is something I will never forget to do again, regardless of where I go in the future.

Remember, it is not the responsibility of the people in your host country to know your language!

14195340_1063519310370728_1719537804001573190_oWhen I went to India, I found the food, dress, weather, and language were radically different from anything I’d known. I thought I could prepare for the unfamiliar, but it took me by storm. I had traveled as a minority in my childhood, but I had never been so obviously a minority as an adult. Delhi is a city with millions of people, but the entire time I resided there I didn’t see a single other person of my skin color outside of our program. Unlike when I was a kid, I noticed every little bit of extra attention I was receiving. People stared, took selfies with me, and touched my hair. It was strange and somewhat uncomfortable to be stared at so blatantly, and have my photo taken without any sort of consent. I did understand that seeing someone who looked so unusual would be intriguing, but I never fully got used to this attention.

No matter how many times I traveled,

each experience challenged me in new and surprising ways.

There is a humility in accepting that

you can’t predict or prepare everything.

Stay flexible, stay open, and offer everyone the

compassion and patience you hope to receive yourself.

 

Tips from the Top

Dear Student,

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.Slider---Nature-Winner

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.

JAPAN - Tokyo - M Hugh - 21

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.AUSTRALIA - Sydney - Gordon East Public School - A Grojean - 33

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

Tony and Barbary ape

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!”

Sincerely,

Anthony Ogden

Executive Director of Education Abroad and Exchanges

24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year

The Office of International Health and Safety is located in room 308 of the International Center. You can contact them at oihs@msu.edu or 517-884-2174.

As the Coordinator for International Health and Safety at MSU, I work in an office that is available 24/7 to respond to crises that may impact faculty, staff, or students traveling internationally on behalf of MSU. One of my specific duties is to share responsibility for responding to calls that come in to MSU’s 24/7 International Emergency Assistance Line. Our work to keep you safe and healthy abroad extends far beyond answering phones, but our ‘duty phone’ is probably the most famous aspect of our office.

img_7772

“So if the phone rings at 3:00 AM… you answer it?”
Yes.

“What if it’s a Saturday?”
Yes.

“And holidays? Are you on call over Winter Break even?”
Actually, that’s a busy time of year for us because there are several education abroad programs traveling then.

 

People are often taken aback – I like to think they’re impressed – by the idea of an office that is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. I get the sense that their reaction is partly driven by an assumption that the hardest part of my job is answering emergency phone calls. Responding to calls is certainly a crucial part of our office function, and I am not oblivious to the weight of that responsibility. But the truth is that answering a ringing phone is not the hardest part of my job. Dealing with silence is.

Let me explain.

International incidents that have the potential to negatively impact the health, safety, and security of travelers happen on a regular basis. Incidents can be major, like the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, or relatively minor, like a large demonstration in a city that disrupts travel plans. Our office is constantly monitoring international news and when events like these happen, our first response is to check our databases to see if we have MSU travelers in the area. If we do, we share information and guidance with travelers. If the event is severe, we may initiate what is called an accountability check whereby we reach out to our travelers and ask them to confirm if they are safe. We are fortunate in that most of the time, our travelers respond quickly and confirm they are okay. We breathe easy, answer questions, and share resources. But every once in a while, we do not hear from a traveler right away. For a while there is silence.

china-wuzhen-s-pelland-58

We have been lucky. So far that silence has rarely lasted particularly long and is typically broken by an apology “Sorry – I wasn’t checking my email!” But if you asked me wperu-urubamba-e-latack-36hat the hardest part of my job is, I wouldn’t say answering the phone at 3:00 AM. If you heard the ringtone on the “duty phone” you would understand how impossible it is to sleep through that. The hardest part of my job is the worrying that comes with waiting for a traveler to check in safely.

There are lots of things I want students to know before they go abroad – how to file a reimbursement claim if you require medical attention while traveling, how to call “911” in an international location – but if I had to pick just one piece of advice it would be this: keep in touch. Check your email. Share you cell phone number with us. Chances are we won’t need to reach out because the majority of the time study abroad experiences go smoothly. But if they don’t, we are here to support you, to offer resources and expert guidance, and we want to hear from you.

Travel safe, Spartans.

Home Away From Home

When you leave for your program, you’ll undoubtedly go full of expectations, plans, and hopes for where the journey will take you. This was absolutely the case for both of my programs to London.  No matter your circumstances, you’ll face challenges.  For me, the main struggles were homesickness, and escaping the bubble of my American university to make local friends. Here’s what helped me find my place:

1. Find your Crewkenya-talek-primary-boarding-and-day-school-h-gurney-8eng

This just in: you’re leaving people behind to go on this adventure.

Perhaps you’re going with a good friend or two, but more likely you’ll be on your own like never before.  Step one is finding the people who will be there for you through the best and worst moments.  Maybe this is a host family, or perhaps a group of friends and roommates on your program, but the first thing to do overseas is to find your crew.  In many places, finding that network may be as simple as a roommate you hit it off with, but in other circumstances you’ll have to do a bit more searching.  Join clubs on campus if you’re on exchange, and take advantage of being different.

If you’ve ever thought that you wanted to be friends with an exchange student here in the States (I know I have), remember people might just be thinking the same thing about you. 

Try not to be shy (said pot to kettle), and just go for it!  One of my regrets from my time abroad is that I didn’t join any local clubs, or make an effort to go to any events at the other universities in London.  I wish now I would’ve struck out on my own at least once a week—remember that building independence is an important skill on this adventure.

2. Celebrate Holidays

(Local, American, Personal, and Fictional)

germany-heidelberg-h-strickland-57

Holidays are everywhere—just as surely as you’re going to miss a few by being abroad on your program, you’ll gain a few local holidays that you’ve never even heard of.  Celebrate all of them (within reason—national cupcake day is not an excuse to miss class).  During my semester in London, we missed out on Thanksgiving at home.  To cope, we had the all-star game of friendsgivings, and everyone made their favorite dish from home.

In local customs, there’s sure to be a carnival, festival, holiday, or something you can go to and see what’s up with your host country.  In the UK, the big one was November 5 (remember remember…), and they celebrate with a big fireworks show.  It seemed very similar to a Fourth of July celebration—ironic, since they’re celebrating the failure of another group of pesky rebels—but fascinating to see a snapshot of history through their eyes. Visiting these special events and celebrating the holidays of your host country will lead to great connections and memories with your new home.

The Personal Holidays (birthdays, anniversaries, etc.) are important to keep celebrating even when you’re overseas.  These are a great excuse to video chat with family and friends for a while, and catch up in a way you might not have had a chance to since you left.  Take advantage, and enjoy company however you can on those important days. It’s the little things that count.

That brings us to fictional holidays—either made up by you or others.  Galentines day is a good option, as are Friendsgiving (see above) and Festivus. Just keep the focus on connecting with new friends and celebrating what you have in common.  My flat (apartment) crew chose to celebrate a Harry Potter Holiday: upon arrival to London, we decided the best time to go to Platform 9 ¾ was on the morning of 1 September.  Though we had to get up early and make our way through the tube system (we learned later we could have walked) to get there and back by 10:00 (you can’t skip orientation), it was completely worth it, and I can only assume we missed the Potter and Granger-Weasley families by an hour or so.

Silly?  Perhaps. 

A fun and cherished memory, and an early bonding experience with new flatmates?  Absolutely.

But those aren’t everyday occurrences…

3. Manage your expectations  (Don’t Believe Facebook)

cuba-havana-old-havana-r-oconnell-45

This is a big one. Remember that social media is only a highlight reel— when is the last time you saw a post about the job somebody didn’t get?  I’m guessing never.  That rule goes double abroad; you will spend time studying during a study abroad program, so know that before you go.  Going abroad can lead you to a number of adventures, but they don’t necessarily happen every day, and life doesn’t stop just because you left the USA.  Know that you will still have to deal with mundane realities like laundry, studying, and grocery shopping–not everything will be glamorous.  That said, one of the coolest moments during my internship was carrying groceries home and seeing the London Eye peering up over the buildings—nothing could drive home that I was living in London quite like that.

 Plus, you can still explore your new home with some simple things, such as reading for class out in your new favorite park. 

If you plan right, you can enjoy the little moments during the mundane things, and still have plenty of time for adventures and exploring…

4. Cancel Netflix: Time is precious

italy-amalfi-coast-j-cox-19

Perhaps the more accurate title for this is ‘have your friend change her password so you can no longer use her account’, but you get the point.  On my semester, I procrastinated a term paper for reasons I can’t even remember now (probably YouTube related), and then had to spend the better part of two weeks in my flat writing.  Those two weeks, knowing London was on my doorstep and I couldn’t do anything with it, were excruciating, regrettable, and totally avoidable.

Time truly flies by when you’re abroad, because you’re both very busy and having fun.  Managing that time, and balancing the academic requirements with the exploration of your new home are perhaps the greatest challenges you’ll face.  I refuse to pretend I have all the solutions to that—see above—but I certainly learned the importance of school/ life balance the hard way.  Some advice I can offer is that your time abroad is possibly the worst time to catch up on any shows, because the opportunity cost is just too high.  Even two episodes a day adds up to over two days of time spent watching TV.  Put that time to other use, and you bought yourself a whole new weekend.

To summarize: go explore! 

Scrubs will (hopefully) still be online when you get back.

“Chi si volta, e chi si gira, sempre a casa va finire”

No matter where you go or where you turn, you will always end up at home.

If you have been around my family before, you would be the first to notice that we aren’t exactly “normal.” We are a big, loud, Italian family, and we meet for Sunday dinner every single week. We celebrate every birthday and every holiday together, and my cousins and siblings are some of my best friends. I live by the saying “Family Over Everything,” and I rarely ever miss a family event. Because of all this, my decision to study abroad and be away from my family for an entire semester came as a shock to some, but my decision to go to Italy was not surprising at all.

Thrilled that I was returning to our homeland, my great uncle sat me down and told me all about my family heritage, sketching out family trees and maps of his favorite neighborhoods. Through him, I discovered that I still have family members living in Italy. My uncle told me that my Great-Grandpa’s nephew still lives in the same house that my great-grandpa and his 5 siblings we born and raised in. My Great Grandpa was born in 1905 and the house was well over 100 years old. He had lived there for 18 years before immigrating to the United States and marrying my Great-Grandma, who had come from a neighboring Italian village. He had died before I was born, and I was excited to connect with a space that had meant so much to him.

I had no idea what to expect when I was on my way from Rome to Santa Croce del Sannio to finally meet the family I have never met before. Of course, I immediately got lost. I went up to the wrong house and an old man started screaming at me in Italian to get out of his yard. I thought this was my family, and I was so disappointed that I had been chased away. I walked back into the town and started trying to figure out how to get back to Rome, when my cousin called: “Are you okay? Did something happen? Why didn’t you come?” I was so relieved. From the very first minute that my cousin came to rescue me from the town square after being lost for over 2 hours, to the very last minute we spent together on the platform waiting for my train to return to Rome, I felt like I was home. Right before I got on the train to go home my cousin turned to me and said, “Remember that we are family, and if you ever need anything you just call and we’ll be there.” In that moment, I knew studying abroad in Italy was the greatest decision I have ever made.

Some days were more difficult, and Rome did not always feel like home. I remember being at a restaurant with my cousin who had come to visit me from America, and we sat next to a couple of Italians. At this point, I had been immersed in the culture and taking an Italian course for 3 months, and I knew the basics of the language. The Italians sitting next to us flagged down the waitress and asked if they could move to a different table simply because they didn’t want to sit next to Americans. I was shocked and offended to say the least and I could not believe that something like that would happen in my family’s country.

It was a strange experience for me to go to a completely different country and be immersed into a culture that I had thought I knew so much about. For the first time in a long time, I felt like an “outsider” and I didn’t know how I was going to deal with it. As a person who was raised on Italian family traditions, I did not expect to feel so out of touch in Italy. I thought I knew everything there was to know about being Italian – have dinner as a family every Sunday with all the cousins, eat a lot (and I mean A LOT), always make fresh sauce and meatballs, go to Church every Sunday, respect your elders, and talk with your hands more than you talk with your mouth. I got some things right, but for the most part I was way off. I eventually adjusted and came to the conclusion that I was never going to fully “fit in” in Italy, but that didn’t make my heritage or my identity any less real or important to me.

 

 

 

The (not so) Ugly American

“What is your opinion of Barack Obama? Did you vote for him?”

a French student asked me.

“Why is the US so involved in other countries’ business?”

a stranger asked me on public transportation in Finland after hearing me speak English.

“Kellie, why do you know what the European Union is and these other American students don’t?”

a professor asked me in the Czech Republic.

“Kellie, this American girl doesn’t know that Portugal is a country. Why?!”

a Portuguese classmate of mine in the Czech Republic exclaimed.

These are just a few of the questions that I remember being asked as an American studying abroad, and they only skim the surface of the kinds of questions and conversations folks like to have with Americans. The United States is a popular topic of conversation everywhere in the world, and our television shows, movies, and politics are broadcast everywhere. Naturally, people abroad have developed opinions of the United States and of Americans. Some of those people are bold enough and curious enough to ask unsuspecting Americans to answer for those opinions.

cheeseburgers-in-olomouc-1
The author, Kellie Clock, making cheeseburgers for her friends abroad.

My first experience abroad was as an exchange student in high school. Before I left for Finland, I was warned that I might encounter people who had negative views toward the United States. I was told to be careful not to stand out too much and to be cautious when in a large group of other Americans. Happily, I only encountered people who were genuinely curious and intrigued by the United States, but they did ask me questions that were difficult for one high school girl to answer. I was only 16 years old, had only lived in Michigan, and did not want to say something that could somehow damage that person’s opinion of all Americans. I slowly learned how to turn these conversations around a bit in order not to feel as though I had the fate of my entire country sitting on my shoulders. They worked for me, so I offer them hoping they might help someone else:

 

First,

ask them if they have an opinion on the question they’re asking you. If they do, ask if they know what influenced that opinion. That could help give you a starting point to try and answer their question the best you can.

Second,

explain that you are from Michigan, or another state, and that you have only experienced life in that one part of a country which is home to 318.9 million people. If you’re comfortable doing so, you can share your opinions – but help the person understand that yours is not the only viewpoint coming from the United States.

Third,

if you don’t want to answer them or if you feel uncomfortable and confronted, you can politely say, “I don’t know”. You might get, “Oh come on, you’re American, you have to know” but just know that you absolutely do not have to know.

There were so many nights during my second study abroad program in the Czech Republic when my international friends would ask me question after question about American customs, history, culture, and topics in which I was no expert at all. I would try my best to answer their questions using my view point, my background, and my culture – and they genuinely valued that. I think they really appreciated being realistic and answering honestly, and loved that I had I asked them about themselves and their home countries in return. Several of the students I met while studying abroad told me that I had changed their opinion of Americans and the United States for the better, all because I was willing to have an open conversation and to ask questions in return. The pride I felt in being an ambassador for my home made the experience that much better.

Beglian National Day - Brooke Buckley.NEF

Studying abroad is incredibly important for so many reasons, and the opportunity to teach others about yourself goes hand in hand with learning about them. Take this opportunity to learn about yourself and your home country as people ask you question after question.

Answer when you can, be honest when you can’t, and always ask them about themselves in return. You’ll all learn something, and perhaps you’ll each change your mind about the other. Each time that happens, the world benefits from more understanding – so be proud that you are doing your part.