Getting ready to study abroad can be time consuming. It’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of application forms, passports, student visas, and course selection. There are, of course, other things to consider in advance, which will make your stay more enjoyable. Here’s a list of things I’m glad I knew—or wish I had known—before my semester abroad.
When I arrived in Paris, I was fully prepared for cold winter weather, as well as the warm spring that would be arriving near the end of my stay. What I wasn’t ready for was all the rain, especially as winter transitions into spring. There is nothing worse than finding yourself stranded in a strange and extremely wet city without an umbrella, a raincoat, or appropriate footwear. Make sure you know what the climate will be like during your stay. Ask former study abroad students, or the program director, for advice about essential items for staying dry, warm, or cool.
2. How to “blend in”
Dress like the locals. Not only will you get a taste of the culture; it will be difficult for thieves to single you out. Find out what kind of clothing, bags, etc. are common where you’re headed, as well as what NOT to bring. For example, in Paris both sneakers and shorts are a dead giveaway. The best thing to do is save up some money to spend on clothes while you’re there. Pack light in your home country, and plan on buying a week’s worth of clothing after you arrive and have a chance to figure out how the locals dress and where to shop for the best deals.
Reading up on the host country and culture before you leave will lessen the culture shock you experience abroad. It’s rather surprising what little things will jolt you, so a basic understanding of daily life will help immensely. Things like meal times, emphasis placed on family life, the role of religion in daily life, social norms of men vs. women, etc. are all important differences across culture. Knowing what to expect won’t remove the trouble you may have adjusting, but it will prepare you for the adjustment, and provide ample opportunity to personalize a strategy.
How you’ll be getting around should also play an important role in your packing. If you’re going to be walking everywhere, comfortable and sturdy shoes are essential, as well as an appropriate bag or backpack. But if you’ll be spending the majority of your time in a metro station, opt for a bag you can easily swing to your front and hold securely to prevent theft. This will also help you budget, since weekend travel, bus tickets or metro passes will add to your expenses. If staying in hostels, you may need an old sheet or sleep sac. If going to the beach, you could probably use a thin towel that dries quickly.
5. Diet changes
Even if you’ll be spending your semester in another Western or English-speaking country, it’s important to remember that everyday food will be different, and that even small changes can have a big impact on your body. I’m used to eating simple and light food in the States, and I didn’t prepare for the common heavier foods in France, where cream sauces and butter are common. Needless to say, I was not a happy camper for the first two weeks or so. I would strongly advise getting to know the food of your host country before leaving, and working it into your diet a couple months before. If you’re going to Japan and have never tried sushi before, now is the time. This will also help you out the first time you sit down with your host family or local friends to eat.
I also recommend bringing some snack bars with you on the day you travel and perhaps fiber supplements or powder to last you through your trip. For the trip, I packed a few easy-to-transport snacks in my carry-on bag, and I was happy that I did. Because of the time difference, I would often find myself starving at the wrong time of day, or in the middle of the night, during my first week abroad. It was great to have something to nibble on to tide me over. In cultures that eat lots of meat and bread products, a fiber supplement would also be useful. Alternatively, you can go out of your way to buy and eat foods rich in fiber while you are abroad.
Not only should you have a rough idea of what your budget will be when you arrive, but you should also know how to access money. Credit card? Debit? I strongly advise one or two of these, as traveling with large amounts of cash is not safe. You should also consider your day-to-day life before you firm up your budget. Spend the first few weeks getting a feel for what you’ll need. How much does daily food and transportation cost? How much can you spend on weekends? What do you want to buy to bring home? And don’t forget to take the exchange rate into consideration. Decide on a rough total before leaving, but allow room to adjust spending in your budget categories.
Finally, know how likely it is that you will need this seemingly essential item. As an American college student, I am the first to admit that I’m addicted to my laptop. But depending on where you’re headed, having a laptop with you may just be a pain in the neck. If you’ll be staying in a city, it’s safe to bet you will have Internet access at least in local libraries or Internet cafes. But if you’re going to be in a rural area, or participating in a program with a strong emphasis on travel, then it may be better to leave the computer at home. Talk to former students of the program about their feelings on the laptop issue. While it’s nice to have one when you need it, carrying an expensive and fragile item around is nothing but a hindrance if it’s not going to come in use.
Think carefully over these potential concerns while preparing to leave, and you will find the transition into your study abroad program much easier, and much less daunting.
Posted by Molly Quinn, contributing student writer, Skidmore College