Studying abroad is a challenging and exhilarating experience, but it is also limited to a few short months. While an entire semester or year abroad will at first give the impression that you have plenty of time to visit ‘that museum’ or to try out ‘that nightclub’, the days will go by more quickly than you’d expect. When it’s time to go home, many students regret not taking full advantage of their time abroad or wish they had a few extra weeks to see more of the country. But you don’t have to be one of these students! Here are five tips to help you get the most out of your experience and come home satisfied:
Tip #1: Explore!
A new country can be strange, confusing, and daunting to a visitor. But it will only remain that way as long as you allow yourself to remain outside. Push yourself to go out and explore as much of your surroundings as possible. Start with monuments or museums, which are easier to find, and once you get your bearings, try taking a walk in a new area every day. Soon you will begin feeling comfortable with every region of your temporary home and will feel less like a stranger.
One of my fellow classmates in Paris perfected a brilliant system for getting to know as much of the city as she could during our four months there. Every weekend she picked a new metro stop and researched the area around it. After identifying a few things to see, she hopped on the metro and went out to investigate. Another idea is to walk from one major landmark (such as a monument) to another in warm weather while checking out the streets and neighborhoods in between. Of course, you want to check in advance that the areas you intend to explore are not dangerous neighborhoods. But the best way to get to know a new city is to explore the everyday aspects of it that you won’t find in a guidebook, so put away your museum plan and start a more modern-day tour.
Tip #2: Practice your language skills
For many students, one of the most intimidating components of a study abroad program is learning and using a new language. This is especially difficult if you are studying abroad with students from your home country because you will be tempted to play it safe and to speak English as much as possible. But don’t fall into this trap! The more you test out your talent for foreign tongues the better you will speak, and the more you will experience.
Try to push yourself to talk to locals in a new situation every few days. Start with small things, like going to the grocery store or asking for directions. If you are out with friends and meet some locals your age, insist on practicing your language skills even if they do speak English. At first this may be terrifying, but the more you push yourself the more comfortable you will become, and soon the thought of conversing with a stranger won’t bother you in the least.
Tip #3: Travel
Getting to know your city is important, but it’s also imperative that you take advantage of the opportunity to travel while abroad. Especially in Europe, a short weekend visit to a neighboring country can be relatively easy and very exciting. If you have vacation time during your abroad study, spend it in a completely different province of your host country or travel to another country that you’ve always wanted to see. You never know when you’ll get another chance!
A word of precaution on this topic, be certain to check your visa limitations before traveling outside of your host country. Also take care to carefully examine hostel ratings before booking a stay and to travel with a trusted friend.
Tip #4: Meet as many new people as you can
If you really want to get a taste of the local culture you need to interact with the locals. Go out with a friend or two to a local bar or club to meet some people your own age. If you can’t afford to go out every weekend, try a local park, free museum, or even chatting up the cashier at the grocery store. If you’re taking classes at a local university, sit next to a group of friendly-looking students on your first day and introduce yourself. If any of these encounters lead to lasting friendships, that’s great! But even a short conversation with someone new will give you more insight and experience when it comes to the country, its language, and its culture.
Tip #5: Bring your experience home
You will certainly want some souvenirs to keep when it’s time to go home, but there are many other ways to keep your time abroad fresh in your daily life once you’re back to your life in the states. If there is a dish your host family made for you that you loved, ask them to teach you how to prepare it and bring the recipe home to share. Take lots of photos and buy some CDs featuring local musicians or traditional music. Remember what parts of daily life abroad you enjoyed and/or learned from and try to make their influence become a part of your habits. The most important part of studying abroad is what you learn from it and what part of it comes home with you.
If you keep these tips in mind during your few months in a new country, you will be certain to get much more out of your time abroad. Remember, pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone is an invaluable skill and this is the perfect opportunity to develop it. Do your best to accomplish everything on your must-see or must-do list, and you’ll have no regrets at the end of the semester.
Posted by Molly Quinn, contributing student writer, Skidmore College