First off, congratulations! I’m so glad you made the decision to study abroad. This will be one of the best choices you make of your college career. It’s an opportunity to experience living in a culture outside of your own, something that many people aren’t able to do again. Although there are countless opportunities abroad post-college that come to mind, including graduate school, teaching English as a second language, or joining the Peace Corps, there is something almost magical about the semester you spend abroad during college. In order to help you make the most of your time, I have complied some advice and real talk about the experience gleaned from years of living and studying abroad.
DO pick a place that will challenge you. The chief benefit of studying abroad is being able to live somewhere you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to live and gain skills and experiences you wouldn’t ordinarily have access to. Because you might only have this opportunity once, make sure you pick somewhere that challenges you in some way. I studied abroad in Paris for six months, a fairly common destination for students, but before I went, I made sure my program emphasized practicing my language skills by facilitating enrollment into a French university. I wanted the challenge that came with being forced to speak French, and it paid off in dividends in my speaking, reading and writing abilities. Similarly, I have heard from Spanish speakers that studying abroad in South America rather than Spain is a great way to make sure you can master the language. Language doesn’t have to be the only way you can challenge yourself. Many programs are in English and for English speakers, but are in locations that are eye opening. You can study abroad in China, India, Eastern Europe or Africa without knowing the local languages before your arrival, and the difference in culture in these destinations is a great opportunity for growth.
DON’T go somewhere that speaks English. I know, Australia/New Zealand/England/Scotland/Ireland looks like such a fun place to live! People party all the time! It’s great! However, if you’re really dedicated to living in a developed, English speaking country, there are opportunities post-graduation to do so. I attended graduate school in England and spent over a year living in London. I had friends do similar things in Scotland and Ireland. Australia and New Zealand, on the other hand, have working holiday visas for young Americans who want to come to work for a few years. On the other hand, when will you have the opportunity to live in Shanghai? How about Moscow? Or Prague or Rome? Or Tokyo or Seoul? Or maybe Dakar or Rabat? Take advantage of these opportunities now while you can, and go to an English speaking country later. One caveat: this does not apply to Ghana, South Africa, or anywhere in the developing world that speaks primarily English. You will be challenged enough by the changes in culture without needing the additional language barrier.
DO try to make as many local friends as possible. It’s tempting to stick with your group of American friends while you’re there. But don’t! You have three, or six, or nine months to explore this city. Make great American friends, but also make friends from the actual city or country you’re living in. You’ll learn so much from spending time with them. Another great way to learn about the culture? Date the locals! Dating someone (or many people) from a different country is a great way to learn about the culture and improve your language skills.
DON’T travel so much you can’t truly explore the city you’re living in. Hey, you’re in Europe! How amazing! You know what’s great about Europe? Eurorail passes! And cheap EasyJet flights! In fact, you could travel every other weekend your whole time here! It would be a HUGE mistake though. Let me break this down for you: the first time I lived and studied abroad, my junior year of college, I spent six months in Paris. That’s about 24 weeks. My program had a spring break (and yours will too) of two weeks, which you should definitely take advantage of for traveling. That left me with about 22 weeks, and therefore 22 weekends, in Paris. I did go out of town two of those weekends. However, that left me with a full 20 weekends to spend in Paris, exploring the city and really getting to know it. Studying abroad isn’t about taking a Eurotrip (although those are great, and I will be posting about them in the future). It’s about really getting to know one city well and understand what it truly means to live there.
DO research your financial aid options. Each university and program is different, but many universities have financial aid that transfers to study abroad, or scholarships you can put towards your semester abroad. Don’t automatically dismiss it as too expensive. There are a lot of ways around the expenses and it may end up being not so bad.
DON’T let someone at home talk you out of it. I know plenty of people who have stayed at home because of a significant other. College relationships can be serious, but don’t give up your chance at studying abroad for a few months with them. They’ll still be there when you return, and if not, they weren’t the one for you. Don’t let this be the barrier preventing you from studying abroad.