I consider myself a passionate travel advocate, though I haven’t been one for very long. I went abroad for the first time in 2009, a mere three years ago. I remember the absolute panic and disbelief I felt at the thought of living in a foreign country for an entire month. I also remember thinking silently (on more than one occasion) what am I doing?
Even though it’s only been three years since I made the giant leap across that giant pond, I’ve grown and matured a tremendous amount. The thought of boarding a plane by myself was comparable to slaying a dragon then. Now, it’s almost second nature.
I understand your pre-departure jitters as you pack up and make plans to go abroad. I want to assure you that not only are you capable of managing this remarkable journey, you’re going to be so thankful you did.
This post is to offer you encouragement and very real, honest advice that I wish I would have had at the time.
Choose your destination wisely
One of my biggest concerns when deciding to study abroad was going to a country that spoke English as a native language. England and Ireland were among my premier destinations for the simple fact that everyone spoke a language I knew. While these are both lovely places to visit and study, this is terrible reasoning. I was limiting my opportunities and endangering my entire experience.
Luckily, I had the wonderful insight of a study abroad coordinator that offered little gems of advice that I still find useful today. She informed me that although citizens of Spain, France or Italy might not speak English as a native language, English is used generously throughout the world. And she was right.
While studying abroad and during my travels after, I come to see how fortunate we are to speak English; it really is the language of travel. Although you may have to resort to a game of charades every once in a while to get your point across, you’re at an advantage if you can understand and speak English. Most every one understands even the smallest amount and while you’re in a new place, you’ll pick up bits of that country’s language, as well. Doing things like ordering food or getting home in a cab will be easy if both parties put in the smallest of efforts. Please don’t limit yourself due to language barriers.
Don’t forget about Asia (or Australia or Africa or South America)
When studying abroad, most young people choose Europe. And why shouldn’t they? It offers everything they want: fun nightlife, rich culture, history, and the chance to meet other adventurous young people.
Often times I think Europe’s friendly neighbor gets overlooked for unfortunate reasons. Let me assure you that studying abroad in Asia will provide you with the same satisfaction you will receive from any other program. I’ve known people who studied in South Korea, China, Thailand and Japan and had life altering, one of a kind experiences.
Keep in mind that Asia is a continent full of history and culture, just as Europe is. Yes, some of the landmarks might not be as popular or world famous as European ones, but in some ways, that makes it more alluring. It’s also important to remember that often times, living in Asia is more affordable than living in Europe and therefore you may be able to get more bang for your buck.
But why stop there? I’ve heard wonderful things about studying in South America, Africa, and Australia as well. The world is, quite literally, your oyster.
Do your research
The study abroad coordinators I spoke of earlier are there for a reason. Pay close attention when they come to your class and show the powerpoints about Why you’ll fall in love with Switzerland! These advisors have been hired by your school to help you with every step of this somewhat overwhelming process, from picking a destination to deciding how long you’ll stay to the classes you’ll be taking. They know what they’re talking about and have probably lived or visited the very place you will call home. Pick their brains, ask them questions and value their suggestions.
And while these advisors will provide you with practical information about the country you will live in or the school you will attend, it’s also important to be street smart. Chances are you know someone or have a friend of a friend that has studied abroad. Evaluate these people’s experiences wisely before you make the transition overseas. More often than not, they will have valuable insight about the culture, customs and people that a study abroad advisor might not tell you. If you’d like more advice of this nature, check out Staying safe abroad for just that.
Make your experience unique
It’s important to ask for advice and be mentally prepared before you embark on this journey, but it’s even more important to take this trip and have these experiences for no one but yourself. I was incredibly grateful for the advice I received before I went abroad, but remember that there are some things that are meant to be discovered on our own. It’s important you take time out of your day to day life (class, meeting fellow students, going out at night) to discover hidden treasures or talk to strangers while walking in a park you never noticed before. These unexpected encounters are the richest.
Be ready for anything
And while it’s important to ask for advice and prepare yourself mentally before traveling to a foreign destination, understand that the only way to learn is by doing it. No matter how many websites you browse, blogs you read, or photos you view, you’re still going to be overwhelmed; it would be a matter of concern if you weren’t. Brace yourself for the culture shock you are going to feel for a short time then embrace this incredible experience.