After spending a semester abroad in Madrid, Spain, I realized that there were several things I wish I had known before I departed the US. Part of the journey of going abroad is figuring out different things about yourself and the places you visit, but listed below are five major points to know before you go.
1. Research before you go abroad.
While most students have an idea of the places they want to visit and the things they want to see before they embark on their abroad adventures, researching some of the top locations and attractions can only help improve your experience. In my case, I almost passed up a weekend in Amsterdam because I never really looked into what the city had to offer and had based my previous opinion on what I thought I knew. A quick Google search showed me that Amsterdam is known for its canals and bikers, is home to the Anne Frank House & Museum, the Van Gogh Museum, Heineken Brewery and so much else, making it one of my most memorable trips. Researching before you leave prevents you from getting caught up in what everyone else is doing and helps you to prioritize your time and money based on your interests. Of course, allow yourself time to explore and find your own great destinations, but try to find the balance between being prepared and spontaneous exploration.
2. Study abroad can be expensive- but there are ways to save!
Regardless if you go for a whole semester or just a few weeks, studying abroad costs money – but can be done on a budget. Make a budget before you go and TRY to stick to it, utilizing these money-saving tips whenever you can:
• Find a local supermarket and make your lunch instead of buying an overpriced sandwich every day between classes. Keep a reusable water bottle handy that can fit in your bag.
• Look for cheap deals on flights and plan ahead. My flight from Madrid to Paris cost only 90 Euro round-trip because I booked it two months in advance! Taking a bus overnight is a good option to maximize your time and minimize hostel costs, but just don’t forget your neck pillow and headphones.
• Bring your own microfiber towel (the smaller the better for packing purposes), regulation-sized luggage, and a luggage lock to save some cash in hostels and avoid extra airport fees.
• Always ask if there is a student discount and have the proper identification on hand. I found that most museums were either free or heavily discounted for students, so take advantage!
• Spend money on souvenirs wisely. Quality over quantity, and remember pictures are always free.
3. You will get stressed.
Between different time zones, missed flights, language barriers, money conversions, outlet conversions, pickpocketers, no wifi, jet lag, and a long time away from family and friends, studying abroad can get pretty stressful, but you will be OK. Consider every obstacle a challenge and face it head on with grace and confidence. Utilize your friends and companions, make friends with locals, and learn from your mistakes. Try your best not to get caught up in small matters or things that are out of your control. Taking on these new- and often unexpected- challenges will help you grow as a person, so try your best to immerse yourself in your new world and do not be afraid.
4. Learning takes place outside the classroom.
While I may have taken international marketing, management and other courses while I studied abroad, the best lessons I learned during my semester in Spain were the things I learned from my host mom, my new friends, strangers, and most importantly myself. Studying abroad exposes you to new places, foods, languages and most importantly, people. Try your best to soak in all you can from the people you meet along the way, whether it’s a handsome Italian in Barcelona or some Australian hostel-mates in Paris. Everyone travels for different reasons, and everyone has something to share and something to teach, including you.
5. You won’t ever be the same.
By choosing to study abroad, you are inherently agreeing to step miles and miles outside your comfort zone in order to find something you feel is missing. People travel for a host of different reasons, and studying abroad affects everyone differently. There are some people I went abroad with who wanted to surround themselves with as many Americans and American things as possible to feel secure, and there were those who immersed themselves in the culture through both the language and the lifestyle. While neither is necessarily wrong, it’s important to remember that studying abroad is a personal journey both literally and figuratively that affects everyone differently at different times. When I returned to the US, it took a couple weeks for me to figure out how to fit my newly invigorated, adventurous and well-traveled self back into the life I left behind. Reverse culture shock is real, but keeping in touch with the people I traveled with and writing about my experiences definitely helps keep it alive. Studying abroad helped me expand the boundaries of my comfort zone, prove to myself and everyone else I could navigate foreign cities and countries on my own, and it humbled me the more I saw and did. Studying abroad also gave me a chance to refocus my goals, become even more independent, and see more of the world in four months than I had in my twenty one years, and I couldn’t be happier or more thankful for my experience.
In the end, studying abroad is a privilege, so try to soak in as much as you can and enjoy every minute of it!
Photo sources: cseward via Flickr, Melanie’s own, Melanie’s own