Thursday, June 26, 2014

Study Abroad Series: 3. Tips for the Right Study Abroad Experience


Not everyone who studies abroad loves it. It’s a fact of life that as much as you might think it will be the best experience of your life, it might be really underwhelming, even disappointing.
         My first study abroad experience in Seoul, South Korea was ab-so-fricking-lutely amazing. I had so much fun at night on the weekends, ate good food, made friends for life, and came back a completely changed person (more confident, more independent, more in love…). My second semester abroad was in Florence, Italy. I cherish my experience and came back a bit more mature, a bit more jaded, and a bit less in love.
         Everyone kept asking me to compare my two experiences and the truth is, I feel madly in love with one experience and had a pleasant time with the other. They were completely different and hard to compare, but if I had to, I would say I loved one more.
         The reason? There were several. My second study abroad was not thought through, it wasn’t a decision I made with only myself in mind, it was a place I chose to go to out of necessity for the classes it offered, not because I was interested in the language or culture.
         Since I’ve had both LIFE CHANGING and ‘good’ experiences abroad, I thought I would share some things that I think you should consider when crafting your ‘perfect’ study abroad experience.
Valentine's Day in Verona, Italy. How romantic!
1. Length Studying abroad for a summer or January term class will give you a different experience than a semester-long trip, which is different than a year-long trip. A month abroad is enough to get to know a place, to get a taste for it, to be comfortable in it, but might not be enough for you to really ever feel like you’re living like a local. Many of those classes also keep you grouped with other students from your school, so you get less of a chance to meet others. A semester gives you that opportunity to ‘be’ a local and make friends with locals because you spend roughly four months living in the same place. Spend a year abroad and you will for sure feel like the place is forever a second home. You might not love your experience or the town/city/village you live in, but you’ll find that you get to know it so well that it becomes a part of you. You might also get really homesick or bored being away from home for so long. Duration of your stay abroad makes a huge difference in your experience.

2. Purpose In order to have that OMGTHATWASAMAZING, NEVERGONNALEAVE feeling while studying abroad, it is important that you are going for the right reasons. Figure out your purpose for going abroad and make decisions accordingly. Want to become fluent in Spanish? Don’t go to Barcelona or Brazil (get edu-ma-cated, people!), consider a less touristy area so that you are FORCED to speak the language, choose a less popular destination so that you aren’t solely surrounded by other English-speaking students. Find your reason for being abroad, make sure it’s your OWN reason and that you’re not going to satisfy mom/dad, your best friend who is dragging you along, a boyfriend/girlfriend who wants you to go, too. I have made the mistake of going abroad with other people in mind, and I have friends who have done the same, and we had really great times but never fell madly in love with the country.
If you're living in the city center of Florence, where most exchange students live, you won't see much green. The photo above is one of the most green sights you will see from the center. If you CANNOT live without tons of nature around you (I'm from the Pacific Northwest so I can relate), choose your location accordingly!
3. Location DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT make this decision lightly. They say “location, location, location” for a reason, people! I promise you, location will make or break your study abroad experience. Figure out if you want a big city, small city, town, village, countryside, etc. Do you want to be in a touristy area that is really diverse and where everyone will speak English to you, or perhaps a lesser known/smaller area where you will be required to speak their language? Do you want to go hiking or explore the rain forest regularly or are you fine with being far from nature? Do you want to be in a country that has easy access to other countries so you can travel a lot, or do you want to spend your time in one country, exploring its different parts? Are you ok with a high cost of living (which may hinder your ability to go out as often or travel as much) or do you want to go to a country where the dollar goes farther? Do you require reliable electricity and hot showers or could you survive in a smaller village where those might not be available to you?
         I didn’t do my research on Florence (or Seoul, for that matter) and was surprised that it was almost exclusively tourists in the city center itself, which is where most of us lived. It was great because I didn’t speak Italian, but it was a problem when it came to getting an authentic Italian experience. Also, Florence was way too small for me. I love HUGE cities like Seoul, NYC, Rome, Paris, Barcelona.
         Figure out what you want, research the foods, customs, languages spoken, size, climate, etc. online (read people’s blog posts, there are tons of people writing about their time abroad). Watch travel videos and shows! Seriously! I’m giving you homework to watch TV! Try anything Anthony Bourdain, “An Idiot Abroad”, or Samantha Brown’s “Passport to Europe”. They don’t show what studying there will be like, but they show you what it looks like and about their culture. If you want to be in Asia, you have to know the differences between each country, because they are HUGE. If you want to be in Europe, being surrounded by the French will not be similar to being surrounded by Italians (trust me). KNOW BEFORE YOU GO, and you will be SO much happier, promise.
This is an English Breakfast. Yes? No? Look up the food of the country before you go, especially if you are picky. You don't go to England for amazing food, you go to France, Italy, Japan, etc. You don't go to China to find Harry Potter, you go to England. So many considerations! (P.S. This cost £7 aka $12 USD.)
4. Cost I’ll keep this short because it’s a depressing topic, for me at least. The cost of living is important. London is SUPER EXPENSIVE, like, I went there for four days during spring break and had bananas and crackers for the last two days because I went broke. I traveled a lot when I was based out of Florence, but if my dreams of being surrounded by Hogwarts students and British YouTubers had come true, I would not have done half the things I did while in Italy, purely because I would have had to direct all my funds towards London’s high cost of living. (Try Prague if you want to live cheaply in Europe, they’re not on the pound or the euro. Don’t go to Switzerland if you don’t want expensive.)
5. Popularity Some places are super popular study abroad/tourist destinations. London, Florence, Barcelona, Paris. Some are less popular. Some are really popular primarily among Americans, some are popular with Europeans. If you want to be surrounded by lots of international students from around the world, or if you want to be surrounded by lots of other Americans, OR if you don’t want to be surrounded by other foreigners at all, choose accordingly. Florence is all Americans. Seoul had a lot of Europeans. To put it simply.

6. Alone vs. With a Friend/BF/GF I have a thing against people who study abroad in the same place as their BF/GF. When you’re young, it is important to have your own experiences, be independent, choose for yourself. If you break up with your boo-boo-baby, would you still want to go where you’re going alone? Would your memories of your time be ruined if you broke up? Would your relationship survive four months apart and if not, why? Ok, I will stop playing therapist now. Just consider it, PLEASE.
         Going with a friend is different, though. My time abroad was made better by having a friend with me because I am shy and slow to make new friends and, only having four months abroad, I didn’t want to spend half of it just finding people I clicked with. IF you are a person who is slow to make friends and have trouble with it, it CAN be an issue when you’re thrown into situations like these. It’s much easier to make friends abroad, everyone is so open to meeting new people, but if you have a friend who wants to go where you do and you’re worried about going alone, go with a friend! Just make sure to branch out once you get there, meet new people, and develop some memories on your own.

If you have any thoughts on this post or thoughts on studying abroad, let me know in the comments! Add some of your own tips if you have them!

Happy travels,

-A

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