Let me preface this with one thing: studying abroad is a wonderful experience that I would never have given up for the world and I intend to go on more programs and before I graduate.
I, in no way, want to deter anyone from studying abroad because it is by far my favorite college experience, but I do want to tell future study abroad students what they are getting into.
Now, studying abroad is hard, very hard in the sense it pushes you out of your comfort zone. Before I left, I was concerned with stressing my relationships back home and what I was going to miss. The most difficult part about being abroad is not the external hardships you’re forced to face, whether it be getting lost in the city or the endless amounts of studying to boot.
The most demanding task is within yourself: to adjust, to feel confident, to have patience, to find a happy medium, to learn how to be alone and to be ok with being alone, to take time for yourself in order to avoid getting burnt out.
Prepare, prepare, prepare — Everyone will tell you more times than you can count before you leave to get ready, but there is nothing that will help yourself more. There are three things I personally think are the most important before you go:
- do cultural research
- learn the language
- know what you need
Before leaving, the Foundations in Cross-Cultural Awareness class taught by the ASU Study Abroad director, Dr. Adam Henry, gave me the exact insight I would need internationally. I did research and found important sources that taught me tips and tricks no one else had about Italian culture.
Later, I landed in Italy only to find out I was the only person in the program who had bothered to learn any Italian, and I still struggled! Not only did this assist me the first few days, but helped me function better than the average American. And finally, think of the unthinkable. Power adapters, hygiene products they won’t have, a reusable water bottle, all of the above.
Pick where you go carefully — Now, I know as well as you that picking which country to study in was almost as hard as actually going. Consider what experience you would like to have. No country will be like the United States, but European and Atlantic countries are the next closest thing while still blasting you with an experience, but South Asia and African areas will pack the biggest punch in culture shock.
So ask yourself some few questions: what do you want to get out of this experience, how long are you going to realistically live somewhere, what kind of people do you want to be around? That last one can be shocking, but believe it or not you will make a lot of study abroad friends, are they the type to only hang around other Americans, or will they hike off the beaten path? Besides location and type of people you’d prefer being around, the Study Abroad Office compiled a great list of questions to consider about academics, location, time, housing, finances, eligibility and any special circumstances you should consider, too.
It can become costly IF you don’t prepare and budget — Being across borders can really hit your wallet hard, whether participating in an exchange program or global intensive experience. There are so many unexpected costs to deal with, such as the need for books at the new university. (Don’t forget the ‘study’ part of study abroad.)
However, if you plan out a budget beforehand and stick to it, you’ll be able to do all the fun activities without breaking the bank. Plan out a daily budget before you leave, but be sure to give yourself some wiggle room. Through first-hand experience, I went to Italy with half of the recommended budget and returned with a little extra to spare. It can be done!
You’re different, blend in, stand out, or ignore it altogether? — One thing to understand when you travel internationally is (surprise!) you’re different. Imagine my shock to learn that despite long walks, in what a native Arizonan can only call ‘late spring’, Italians do not wear shorts; it is simply not in their culture. (Thanks for the warning, Internet.)
Sporting my preferred shorts, mini dresses, and skirts immediately labeled me as an American, but I’ve found there is no way to hide the imminent confusion spread across your face at all times. Of course, try to adjust and adapt to your new host culture, it is what you are there for anyways, but also understand that you are going to look, act, and feel like you stand out. My recommendation is to accept it because those stares on the subway will not be the hardest challenge.
Are you missing out? — Yes, you are missing out on home activities big time. This is where you develop a love/hate relationship with social media. By studying abroad, you are putting your entire life on hold for however long and picking it back up later, but everyone else doesn’t do it with you. Friends and fun can all wait, but this experience can’t. Put down that phone and go make some memories to tell when you get home and friends are all waiting for you.
Why the time difference is a good thing — Let’s face it. You did not spend six months preparing to talk to your friends and family at every waking moment. Arizona is a whopping 8-10 hour time difference from any given place in Europe or Africa, and don’t get me started on East Asia.
While that may seem daunting, I promise this is a great opportunity. You will get plenty of time to FaceTime, text, email your loved ones what is going on with your day, but the majority of your time will be spent without any form of contact; it will force you to enjoy your time abroad and get your eyes unglued from the screen.
I’m not saying technology will be absent from your life, even as we speak this is written in the notes of my iPhone on the train between Rome and my Santa Marinella beach day. Remember that quickly catching up before going to bed is a beneficial way to enjoy your time and give those back home a happy “good morning”.
It’s not ASU, it won’t be like ASU, not even close, this is what you signed up for. Be honest with yourself about what you need and want during this time and, as cheesy as it sounds, don’t forget to find yourself. This is your time! The feelings you get when you experience other cultures and see picturesque landscape cannot be replaced, so do not be scared of getting your hands dirty to get there.
After all, no one ever got to the top of Everest without hiking it first.