10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Studying Abroad
If you have ever wanted to travel to another country and live in a foreign, exciting environment, studying abroad during college is your best option. It will likely be the only time in your life when you can reasonably take a five month vacation overseas without the worry of a demanding career or family responsibility. You will also live and study with people who share your passion for adventure and new experiences. However, the moment you are set loose in another country you can easily become overwhelmed, confused and uncertain of your decision.
I had the amazing opportunity to study abroad at the Suffolk University campus in Madrid, Spain. While I spent months planning and preparing for the voyage of a lifetime, I still found myself lost in the most basic aspects of life. Practices that are second nature in Madrid were difficult to understand and adjust to. After a few months I not only managed to figure out the basics, but also adapted to everyday Spanish life beyond what I ever thought possible. That being said, there were still a few tips I wish I had known before studying abroad.
1. Bring Home With You
One of the greatest obstacles students who go abroad face is the wave of emotions associated with feeling homesick. For some, the depression and anxiety hits almost immediately. Others spend awhile running from place to place in excitement before eventually stalling out. The remedy for this is bringing home with you. I was sent to Spain with a family photo book that I could flip through whenever I felt distant. Students would bring their favorite stuffed animal, clothing from their siblings, framed photographs and any other piece of home that could fit in a suitcase. No one is immune to homesickness, so avoid leaving everything of meaning in the U.S.
2. Same People All Semester
Suffolk University in Boston hosts around 5000 undergraduate students. In comparison, I studied with 110 others in Madrid. The “campus” consists of a single building of four classrooms and a handful of professors. Even if you are studying at a large university, you will most likely flock to other Americans and students enjoying the abroad experience. In Boston, anonymity is the expectation; abroad it is the exact opposite. Anything from a brief romance to a wild night out will be the gossip of the day. Be prepared to have any action become front-page news.
3. Basics of Dining Out
Food is at the center of every culture’s daily life. Meal time is also widely different from place to place. In Spain, breakfast includes coffee and bread, lunch is a three-course extravaganza, and dinner (generally held between 8 and 9 p.m.) is a large snack before heading to the bars and clubs. There is also a menu of the day in which an appetizer, meal, and dessert are planned at local restaurants during certain hours for a reasonable price. If the various dining times are strange enough, simply learning the language of ordering food can be an arduous task. Learn about the tradition of food in your country of study in order to gain the most out of foreign delicacies.
4. Find the Local Spots
When first abroad, you will be drawn to the tourist spots merely out of convenience and hype. Sol, Fuencarral, and El Rastro are exciting shopping centers in Madrid where foreigners flock, but many are often swindled, pickpocketed, or tricked into purchasing mock Spanish food that comes from a microwave rather than a skillet. Find the local, family-owned spot where you can sit down to a menu the average citizen would find delectable. Shopping in these places will also lead to more traditional, culturally-based purchases.
Modes of transportation are generally the same from place to place; there are cars, planes, trains, and buses. Combining them can be tricky at first, and generally require multiple apps and web sites to find the fastest and cheapest option. For spring break alone, I took a plane to Vienna, a train to Prague, a bus to the Sedlec Ossuary, a train to Budapest, and finally a plane back home. In Madrid, I had a month-pass on the metro in order to get to school during the week and to see my friends on the weekend. Professors and locals will be your best resource in this endeavor as they are skilled in getting around. Without proper transportation, you risk missing out on the most rewarding parts of studying abroad: traveling.
6. Currency Exchange
The currency exchange can make or break your experience in a foreign country, and it changes regularly. Use an app or Google the current exchange rate before withdrawing money or swapping dollars for local money. $200 U.S. can easily become $170 in euros, immediately reducing your spending money. When running between countries, make sure you are aware of how strong the dollar is, or you could end up losing a chunk of change.
7. Banking and Budgeting
On that same note, banking can become your worst enemy. Hidden fees will slam you at inopportune times, even if you are using a foreign bank. Do thorough research on the highest ranked banks in your country of choice and study their policies on withdrawals and exchanges. Also, keep a decent day-to-day budget. Dining out every night and shopping every day will quickly add up. Unless you want to be living tight on money before the semester is up, start looking for deals, coupons, and any ways you can avoid overspending.
8. Hostels Can Be Your Best Friend
Due in large part to a certain horror flick from a few years back and some poor reviews, hostels have been given a bad reputation. In reality, they can allow you to stay in multiple countries for under $100. Hostelworld.com is an excellent resource that can help you find places to stay, explore amenities, read reviews and track where you have already been. The larger the room you stay in (I was once in a room with 18 available beds), the cheaper your stay. Let be honest, you’re not going to be spending much time there anyways. The people you bunk with can become exploring companions as well.
9. Don’t Forget About School
This happened far too often in Madrid, and I imagine everywhere else as well. Students would go out every night and travel every weekend, causing them to miss classes and perform poorly on exams. Prioritizing your experience will keep this from happening, such as making sure your essay is completed before a dinner out and planning travel arrangements around your class schedule. Coming home will be a lot easier if you don’t ruin your GPA while abroad.
10. Try New Things!
Whether the menu is in English, Spanish, Italian, or Chinese, you are going to be overwhelmed with meal options, causing you to revert to the basic dish you know and love as a safe move. I would spend half an hour with people attempting to Google every word in a description instead of simply ordering something they had never tried while I dove in fork first. I almost always had the best, most authentic meal at the table.
If you are studying abroad, do not waste time trying to find America in a foreign country. Attend a flamenco show in Sevilla, take dip in the great bath house of Budapest, drink ale from a horn in a tavern in Portugal. Spend this time experiencing the wonders of the world outside of our own city. You never know when you will have another chance.