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 Crew
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)
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.
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)
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
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.