Studying Abroad: 6 things they didn’t tell you at orientation

You have checked and re-checked your packing-list, your carry-on is ready (you have your emergency pair of underwear, tooth brush and foreign currency), your Passport is in and you are a proud owner of a Student Visa. You are Study-Abroad student, and if you were anything like me, you will plan plan plan all day long pre-departure, and still never feel completely prepared.

Orientation was a good start. They talked about cell-phones abroad, culture-shock, and how it will all change your life. But here are a few things I didn’t have anyone advise me to do…

  1.  Make sure it’s your study abroad experience. Yes, you should look at the websites your school provides, plan to visit the restaurants and bars past study abroad students have raved about, and read the guidebooks about your city, but you should also go into it with the mind set that this is YOUR experience, not someone else’s. Maybe your Aunt visited your study abroad location last Spring and she told you all about her favorite cafe and how they have the best coffee and the best pastries and how her and the barista were the best of friends and blah blah blah… and yes, I do encourage visiting this notorious cafe, but also highly recommend you finding your own favorite cafe or bar. All in all: find YOUR favorite places and don’t stick strictly to the guidebooks or advise you’ve heard from others.
  2. Don’t go expecting to much. America’s standards of living is higher than much of the rest of the worlds. Whether you are studying abroad in Ghana, where (at least I hope) you know the standards of living will be lower, or you are going to Europe. You should expect that toilets WILL be different, accommodations will be smaller and standards of cleanliness is defined differently (always be sure to have Kleenex with you! More often than not you will find public toilets to be lacking the thing we find as an essential bathroom necessity in America: toilet paper)
  3. Packing essentials you may not have thought of. Number one of this list: a battery powered alarm-clock. Not a phone or and iPod, but an actually alarm clock. You wouldn’t believe how useful one of those can be, thus why I am making it number one. Number two: a cloth shopping bag that you can fold it up small into your suit case. It weighs virtually nothing, you can use it as a book bag, or more importantly you can use it as a bag for your groceries. Many countries in Europe charge you for plastic bags at the grocery stores (so now we’re talking about it being a money-saver!) and secondly, a cloth shopping bag is PERFECT for your afternoon shopping at the open air markets. Whether you are buying fresh produce or stocking up on organic wines and cheeses, your hand-dandy cloth shopping bag will free up your hands (hands of which will most likely help you communicate if you are not fluent in the local language). Lastly, I recommend a dirty clothes bag. Something like a mesh bag that is easily able to be tucked away in your suitcase no problem. It is surprising how much more organized you will feel with this small packing essential.
  4. Don’t hide who you are, but also don’t advertise it. As you many already know, and as you will soon find out, Americans don’t always have the best reputations over seas. American girls can be labeled as easy and ignorant. I first and foremost recommend NOT to get belligerent-drunk in foreign countries. It makes you a target for pick-pocketing, rape and it definitely does not aid America’s reputation when the locals see a group of Americans stumbling down the streets screaming Amurrika! Sing with me now! The stars at night are big and bright, BUMP  BUMP BUMP BUMP, Deep in the hearrrrtttt of TEXAS! And although my advice for this has so far has seemed as if I am telling you to deny that you are American, I am actually telling you the contrary. My hope for you and your study-abroad experience is that you can maybe change one local’s opinions of America’s youth. After all, aren’t you studying abroad to try new things and change your outlook on life? (Well I recommend starting this by leaving you binge drinking and frat boy one-night stands at home)
  5. Learn the basics. You don’t need to be fluent in Spanish, or German, or whatever language your chosen country speaks to make it there- but you should know the basics. Learn: ‘Please’, ‘Thank you’, ‘I am sorry’, ‘Can I have this’, ‘I don’t speak Italian’ (or Spanish, or German, or whatever), ‘Where is the toilet’. All these small phrases can get you SO far in a foreign country. And even if the person laughs at your language skills, they are 9 times out of 10 going to be more helpful because you tried. Now lets for a minute imagine you are a waiter: You have two tables that just sat down and both don’t speak a lick of English. Which one will you enjoy waiting on more? The one that says Hello, uhhhh, sorry I do not speak English. I, uh, want, uhhhh (and points to the hamburger), or the table that you approach and starts speaking to you in fluent French like you are suppose to know what they are saying. Moral: never ASSUME someone knows English and always try. The basics are everything!
  6. Document it all! I didn’t blog, or write in a journal, or take pictures daily in America before I studied abroad. And maybe you don’t either, but I do highly recommend you taking up this habit while studying in a foreign country. My most prized and precious things I brought home from study-abroad was my blogs, my journals and my captured memories via Flip recorder and camera. You never think you’ll forget the small details of a place, but then again you never think you’d be the one to get pick-pocked while abroad: but both are very likely.

Most importantly, enjoy your time abroad! Only 1% of American College students ever do. You are lucky. Live, Learn, Explore!

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