Studying abroad can be a daunting experience for those who don’t know what to expect. I have travelled to different countries since I was 16 years old, and my decision to study abroad awoke the butterflies in my stomach. Maybe I was overwhelmed because I was going to France and didn’t speak the language, or because their culture was vastly different than my own. I knew firsthand that culture shock was a very real thing. I remember studying French the weeks before leaving, as well as studying the metro lines every moment I found some free time.
If you find yourself in my shoes, my advice would be to relax. You aren’t going to be thrown into this country to fend for yourself. You will have orientations to guide you, you will have people to call in case of an emergency or if you just need someone to talk to, and you will have a group of study abroad students to accompany you. You are not alone! Study abroad gives you the opportunity to discover a new country on your own degree of comfort. If you want to discover the country on your own, you can. If you are more comfortable staying with a group, that’s an option, too! I discovered that studying abroad really isn’t a one-size-fits-all experience. In order to increase the satisfaction of your trip, there are a few things to consider.
Studying abroad is possible because of the educational aspect
I’m sure your parents will drill you about staying focused on your studies, but some of the most satisfying aspects of my study abroad experience was thanks to the professors and the subject matter of their classes. Go beyond the content you’ve learned and also get to know your professors (if it is respectful based on your new culture). From my experience, the professors who will mentor you want you to ask questions and better understand their culture. Ask them about the best places to eat, the popular attractions, and if there is anything you should do before you leave. I have received the best advice from my international professors that I follow to this day. They helped me realize that the unknown and unfamiliar are not bad or dangerous. They are just different, and differences give people more diverse ways of thinking.
Blend in with your host country
You will get the most out of your experience if you behaviorally and physically adapt to your host country’s way of life. When I was studying abroad in Paris, it was laughably easy to tell who was a foreigner. Do research on your host country and be prepared. Leave your neon-colored clothes and flip-flops at home! Not only will you avoided stares from locals, but you will also be less of a target for pickpockets.
Practice the Language
When I went to France, I knew one word: Bonjour. By the end of my experience there, I managed to struggle through basic conversations and was able to order for myself. The people that I studied abroad with all took a semester of French previous to studying abroad. I noticed that those who stayed within their comfort circle, surrounded by Americans, didn’t attain any language improvements, while those who branched out improved a lot! I would suggest going into the country determined to not speak anything except for the language of your host country. This is going to be extremely difficult, but it is attainable if you bring a pocket dictionary that translates words for you into the language you wish to speak. As strangers for directions and attempt to order your meals in this new language. Your study abroad experience will be much more satisfying this way. Most importantly, celebrate the little successes. Fill yourself with pride for every new word you memorize or every time that you are able to read a billboard or ask for directions. It’s challenging but SO rewarding. Stay patient and enjoy the ride!
Learn the Culture
Fully dive into your host country’s culture. Go explore the country yourself (just stay aware of your surroundings and don’t draw attention to yourself to stay safe). If you aren’t fully comfortable with exploring your country alone, take a friend with you but agree to only speak your host country’s language. Venture out and make friends with the locals, too! When I was in France, I realized that there are so many people who want a chance to learn English from a native speaker. I made friends by proposing to the locals that I would speak English to them if they speak French to me. This may seem crazy, but it worked! Have coffee or go to a park with them. I would even propose that they show me around the city and explain historically famous areas, such as Notre Dame and Versailles. As long as you take precautions to stay safe, you have little to lose!
Document your travel
You will want to remember your experiences and share what you have done during your travels! Upon arrival, many of your friends and family will ask for you to explain your experiences and to tell them what you have done. It would be a shame to answer back “I don’t know, but it was fun”. Keep a notebook in which you write in for every new thing that you have discovered in your host country. You could write down new phrases that you’ve learned, songs and artists that are well-known within the country, the names to people that you’ve met, the history behind the country’s historical sites, and your favorite places to visit. Include your thoughts and feelings within this notebook. I have forgotten certain things, but when I look back through my notebook, I am instantly reminded and re-experience the excitement and longing to go back.
Studying abroad is the opportunity of a lifetime. Studying abroad through CEA has provided me with the tools in order to face daunting experiences. You are well-taken care of, so the stress is kept at a minimum. Experiencing a new country can be overwhelming and you may experience culture shock, but this is a normal process that will eventually fade into the background. Discover your host country with an open mind and embrace the idea that differences are not bad, just different!
Brianne Richards is an Alumni Ambassador at CEA Study Abroad, she studies Communications in Paris, France.