Earlier in the summer I was asked to share some tips for studying abroad as part of this Holly Goes Abroad series. Since it’s nearly time for the new semester to start, I thought this would be a good time to give some advice. Of course, I am in no way a study abroad expert, so take all of my tips with a grain of salt. All study abroad programs differ in structure, size, scope, etc. and your experience will vary hugely based on where you’ll be located. But today I’m going to share some overarching, general advice that will hopefully apply to many different kinds of study abroad programs and experiences.
1. Plan ahead.
Before you hop on that plane all excited and nervous, do some research about where you’ll be living for the next few months. What’s the weather like? What’s the food like? What’s the education system like? Will you need to dress casually or more professionally? These might sound like pretty obvious questions, but you’d be surprised at how things like that can sneak up on you.
2. But not too much ahead…
I am a planner by nature. Before going abroad, it was rare that I did anything without thinking five steps ahead first. But this futuristic mindset doesn’t always fly when you’re studying abroad. You’re constantly meeting new people and seeing new places, and what you expected to be doing after classes get out may be very different from what you actually end up doing. Some of my most memorable moments from my year abroad happened because my friends and I were just randomly exploring the city or trying out new pubs or taking chances on things we wouldn’t ordinarily have done. Of course, safety is the number one priority. But if everyone is safe and comfortable, then go ahead and be spontaneous! You never know what you might find.
3. Postcards are your pals.
I’m the kind of person who likes to keep little mementos from the places I’ve visited so I can get all nostalgic about them later on. But everyone who has ever studied abroad knows how difficult it is to squeeze all the stuff you’ve accumulated back into your suitcase at the end of your time there. Instead of buying bulkier souvenirs during your travels, I would recommend purchasing some postcards. Not only are they easier to pack away later, but they are also generally pretty cheap to buy. I could usually get postcards in Oxford for around 50p and for around 1 euro when I traveled elsewhere in Europe during my spring break. I love looking at my little postcard collection now and remembering all of the places I went and the amazing things I experienced.
4. Reach out.
This is perhaps the most important piece of advice I can give—and the scariest. On the plane over to England for the first time, my biggest fear was that I wouldn’t make any friends and that I would spend the year roaming the cobblestone streets of Oxford alone. But I was so, so wrong! Everyone you’re studying abroad with is in the same boat: everyone is feeling a bit out of their comfort zone and would love to meet new people to share that experience with. Try not to feel awkward or nervous about reaching out to people—they’ll probably appreciate that you took the initiative to talk to them first! Social media was super helpful when I was abroad. The program had set up a Facebook page for all of us, and when I arrived in Oxford I posted asking if anyone would want to meet up. I met some of my best abroad friends in those early days, who then introduced me to even more friends. You never know who you’ll meet, or when!
5. Study abroad is what it is, and that’s okay.
Do not fall into the trap of thinking that your study abroad experience has to be the absolute best time of your life or you’re doing something wrong. Not true. I had an amazing time studying abroad, but there were also so many nights where I lay in bed staring up at my ceiling and just wanted to go home. There’s nothing wrong with being homesick or not loving where you’re studying. However, it does help to remember that it’s all only temporary. You will have good days and bad days, highs and lows, and when you look back on your experience years later they will average out to create a fuller picture of what your entire time there was like. So don’t worry if you don’t love every second of studying abroad—you’re definitely not alone.
6. Don’t pay too much attention to social media.
This point piggybacks off of the previous one. No matter what is actually going on behind the scenes, people you know who may be abroad at the same time as you will make it look like they are having the time of their lives. And they might be, but that doesn’t also mean they aren’t a little homesick or uncomfortable, too. I found that when I reached out to my friends who were also studying abroad when I was they were experiencing many of the same challenges and struggles that I was. Social media only tell one side of the story—there is always, always more to it.
7. Make your experience your own.
By all means, see the sights and visit all of the usual tourist attractions wherever you’re going—that’s part of studying abroad. But be sure to also visit places and do things that interest you on a personal level, even if they are a little off the beaten path. For instance, I love going to bookstores (obviously), so I made a point to research cool bookstores in cities that I visited before I went so I could stop in (Amsterdam has some fantastic ones!). My friends and I spent entire days in London visiting different bookshops, and it was glorious. Not only does this make your study abroad experience unique and more personal to you, but it also lets you see a different side of places than you ordinarily would.
I hope these tips are helpful! If you are studying abroad in the near future, have an amazing time!
What are your thoughts on these tips? Have any to add? Are you studying abroad soon, or have you in the past? Let me know in the comments section below!