Arriving at Your Study Abroad Destination

So you just stepped off the plane in a foreign country and you have no idea what to do. Your first step should be to take a deep breath. If you prepared ahead of time, as recommended, you will already have some sort of transportation waiting to take you from the airport to your host school.

Look for people you know who are going to be in the same program. After you get your bags, immediately go find whoever it is that is supposed to be picking you up. They’re probably holding a sign with your name so they shouldn’t be that hard to find! If you’ve organized transportation through your host school, there’s probably a group of students from your school wearing bright colored t-shirts that scream “I’m here to help because you have no idea what’s going on”.

Take full advantage of the ride to school if you can. After the long transatlantic trip, a lot of people fall asleep, but in my mind that’s a bad idea. You should try your best to stay awake for this part of your trip as this is going to be your first taste of your new home for the next semester or year. Take it all in – your first impression is one of the many things you’ll never forget.

While it’s almost always the case that you will have some sort of orientation during your first week at your new school, how that orientation is run will vary from school to school.

During my orientation week at the University of St. Andrews, I only had one mandatory event to attend, and that was class advising and selection. The rest of the orientation events pretty much revolved around getting acquainted with the social scene, both on- and off-campus: class/color wars, table quizzes, the Bop (UK equivalent of a techno rave), etc. I urge you to take full advantage of these night time festivities. This is where you will meet the bulk of your new friends, especially if you live in a dorm or hall and they sponsor an in-house event.

My orientation at CET in Beijing, China was completely different. Because Beijing is such a large city, there were a lot more logistical things we had to take care of. Because the program was an intensive language program, a good portion of the week was dedicated to getting us placed in the right proficiency level and preparing us for class. We were up every morning by 9:00 a.m. so enjoying the nightlife into the wee hours was a rare occurrence.

By the way, you’re probably going to spend a lot of money that first week. Most students make this mistake when they first go abroad because they’re still in “vacation mode”. Your spending will drastically reduce after this first week is over, and the realities of classwork, study and day-to-day living set in.

Somewhere in the first two weeks or so, there will also probably be some type of sports and/or activities fair. This is your chance to integrate part of your life back home with your life abroad. Do you like to play basketball? Volunteer? Play chess? Whatever it is you do, try and find a team or club that relates to your interests. This is another area where you’ll meet tons of new friends. Maybe you want to try something new. At St. Andrews there were over 120 clubs (not including sports) ranging from beer tasting and wine and cheese socials, to sewing and volunteering club…you name it, it existed. 

The best part is, in just about every country other than the U.S., sports and clubs aren’t quite as involved. You don’t have to be an expert athlete to join the cricket or korfball team (look them up, they’re good times). So don’t hold back. It’s likely the more you get involved, the more attached you will feel to your study abroad program and the other students who are a part of it. 

On somewhat of a serious note, be prepared for culture shock. Accept the fact that you probably won’t have TV (which is a good thing). You’re not going to see the Yankees win the World Series and you’re not going to be able to keep up with your favorite TV series. If you really need to stay up to speed, you’ll always have your computer.

They probably might not have the same brand names where you’re going. Things like Tide, Cheerios, or Skippy might exist, just under a different name. Don’t freak out, you’ll adjust quickly. Some things like Coca Cola are going to be pretty much the same (although they have different terms for diet and light). Take comfort in the fact that not everything will be different.

Be prepared for ridiculous costs. I’m not saying that everything is going to be expensive, but just be aware that some things are. I paid something like four dollars a load for laundry, and I had a lot of laundry. It may be a result of being in a different country, or it might just be that something in particular, like laundry, costs more at your school.

On a more somber note, try and get yourself ready for the actual academic part of the study abroad experience, as well basic life in general. Like I’ve said and will continue to say, I believe if you fail your classes, you’re wasting a good part of the experience. Look into whether or not you need to buy books. If not, you should probably go find the library because more than likely you’ll have to check books out for short periods of time.

While you’re at it, try to get acquainted with the rest of the area around your school. The experience is always better when you actually appreciate the landscape and local culture, not to mention you don’t want to get lost on your first day of class.

Head to a store and buy some basics: toiletries, cookware, linens, laundry detergent, food, etc. Overall, just try to enjoy that first week or so that you’re there. It’s probably the only time you will have zero work, and therefore the best time to fully enjoy your new found freedom in a foreign country.

Final Notes:

It’s not a bad idea to try and find a job. Working eight to 10 hours a week, even for minimum wage, will probably take care of a huge chunk of your weekly expenses.

Lastly, I’ve heard the best cure for jet lag is a long night’s sleep, followed by a hot meal when you wake up.