Caleb Crum is an SAI Ambassador who studied at Florence University of the Arts (FUA) during the Spring 2014 semester. He now promotes SAI and studying abroad at his home university, Missouri State University in Springfield, MO.
So you’re about to study abroad, huh? Awesome! I’m also guessing that this will be your first time leaving the country, at least for a long period of time. That is perfectly fine, as many students are in the same position that you are in. To help you out a bit, here is a guide to having a better experience abroad. A lot of people go into studying abroad not knowing what to do or how to prepare. Hopefully, as you read through this guide, you will be better prepared for this life-changing experience that you are about to embark upon!
At Home Prep: This whole experience begins while you are still at home. You have a ton of prep work that you need to get done months in advance before you leave the country. Here is a list of things that you should make sure get done early:
- Get your passport! Do this as soon as possible. Get a passport photo taken (this can usually be done at the post office), fill out the application (you can find this online), and get it turned in ASAP (you can turn it in through the mail or at a passport acceptance facility). You don’t want to wait too long with getting a passport, due to the tendency of long processing times.
- Once you have received your passport back, immediately move into the Visa process. Getting a Visa can be an extremely rigorous and stressful process, as different countries have different Visa requirements. Your study abroad provider should be able to help you along with this process and maybe even be able to get it processed for you. If not, then you will have to fill out all of your paperwork and go to the nearest consulate for the country you are studying abroad to. It is recommended that you avoid this option, as setting up an appointment with the consulate can be difficult.
- Do some research on the country that you are going to be studying abroad in! Learn about the history, culture, food, fashion, famous sites, whatever you can. You will find that having a little bit of knowledge about a location, before you visit it, will make your trip so much more worth it. Plus, it helps you look a little less like a tourist.
- SAVE THAT MONEY!! Start saving money and cutting small expenses out of your budget to help you have something to travel on. Slow down the unneeded spending, like that daily dose of Starbucks (yes, as much as you think you can’t live without Starbucks, YOU CAN), and put that money back towards your study abroad savings. You’re going to want to eat out, experience the nightlife, buy souvenirs, and, of course, travel more. The only way that you are going to be able to experience all of this is if you save up enough.
- Now is the time to learn how to pack properly. Throwing your entire closet into 3 suitcases, a carry-on, and a purse isn’t going to work. With travelling abroad, you will learn that having less will make life so much easier. I would suggest learning to roll your clothes, packing very minimally (leave some space for things you will buy, like more clothes), and limiting yourself to one medium-sized suitcase and a backpack.
- If you are bringing electronic devices, which you probably are, then it would be best to pack them into your carry-on. Make sure that they are easy to take out, as you will have to remove them during security check at the airport.
- Try not to bring any toiletries with you. You can easily buy these at your destination and it involves a lot of work to try and bring them with you.
Airport Survival: Ever been inside an airport? It can be a pretty intimidating place, even for frequent travelers. You can easily point out the people that have never been in an airport just by the clueless and worried look on their face. Well, if you follow these tips, then I will help you avoid that awkwardness and get through like a pro!
- The very first thing that you should do is GET THERE EARLY. I can’t stress this point enough to you. Going through an airport is stressful enough, let alone being rushed on a tight time schedule. If you get there early and get all of your pre-flight prep taken care of, you will be much better off and can more easily cope if complications arise.
- Make sure that you have all of your important documents, like your passport, on your person at all times. Don’t pack it in your luggage or you’re going to have some major issues, such as not being able to get through security.
- Airlines have weight limits for luggage and if you exceed weight (you can find specifics on their website), then you’ll be looking at some hefty fines or you’ll be THAT person who has to take things out and hand them off to your parents. If you have packed minimally, then you shouldn’t have to worry about making weight at check-in. It’s always safe to weigh your bags before getting to the airport.
- Once you have checked in, go and find your gate. This may seem like a “duh” thing to mention, but there are so many things to distract you in an airport that something could come up and you not even know about it. Think about if you sat down at an airport restaurant and was there until you needed to go to your gate, only to find out that the gate was changed last minute (this does happen). Go find your gate and keep an eye on the flight board to keep updated on your flight status.
- Before you can even make it to your gate, you will have to go through terminal security. This can be a painless process, as long as you know what you’re doing. While you’re in line for security, start emptying your pockets and taking off anything metallic. Throw everything into those tubs (you’ll usually have to use separate tubs for stuff in your pockets, your carry-on, and your electronic devices) and follow the security personnel’s instructions. If you don’t freak out, they won’t freak out.
- Don’t shop at the stores in the airport. These stores have outrageously high prices for things that you could get for a fraction of the cost. If you really need to, you can splurge on a neck pillow or other things to help make your flight more comfortable.
- Once it gets to around 20 minutes before your flight starts boarding, I would suggest hanging out by your gate. That way you can get in line for boarding a lot sooner, which means you will get on the plane quicker. If you get on the plane quicker, then you have a better chance finding overhead storage for you carry-on. See the benefits of being early?
The First Week: This is probably the most exciting moment of your entire experience while studying abroad. That initial arrival to the place that you have been thinking about since you decided to study abroad (maybe even before then) is a time where you feel overwhelming excitement, confusion at being somewhere unfamiliar, and some anxiety all at the same time. But don’t worry, if you follow along more, I can help you figure out how to get through your first week abroad.
- Depending on what study abroad provider you went with, there should be someone at the airport to help get you to your housing and tell you important information about what kind of entrance activities will be going on during your first week. Usually these involve your program orientation, city tours, and welcome parties. GO TO THESE! You don’t want to miss out on the things that you do and find out about during these activities (orientations are usually a required attendance so you can get your class schedule and fill out school paperwork).
- Get all of your “touristy” photos out of the way during your first week. I say this because as your time abroad progresses, the likelihood that more and more tourists will be arriving is very high. More tourists means more crowds and more crowds means that it will be harder to go see things. If you take all your “touristy” photos of your city when you first arrive, then you can focus on trying to see the city from a local’s point-of-view (which is, really, the best way to experience a city).
- A really great thing to do is to go and find where your classes are going to be held. You will more than likely be given a map that highlights where your specific school buildings are located, so take your class schedule and find your building. It helps to know where it’s at before classes start versus 10 minutes before your class.
- GO GET LOST! This is something that a lot people do that want to get to know a city better. If you put your city map away and just start walking through the streets, you are more likely to find cool places and remember them better than trying to find them on a map. Try it! You’ll be surprised at what you run across.
- Try and find some social media pages or groups that can let you know about things that are going on in your city. This kind of information will help you in the long run when you are trying to plan out your day/night.
Travel and School Balance: A big part of the study abroad experience is doing more travel. You will probably have a ton of other places that you will want to go see, but you will have to learn how to balance how much you can travel with your classes. Let’s find out how you can do that!
- Just like in college classes at your home university, you will most likely get a syllabus on your first day of classes abroad. A key thing to look at is the class schedule. This will give you some idea of when you will be able to travel. It would also be a good idea to find out how many absences you can have before it starts affecting your grade, just in case you come across uncontrollable issues when travelling that makes you miss a class (i.e. cancelled flight back to your host city).
- It would be best to try and avoid any major travelling right before a big test. Use this time to study and then reward yourself after you have tested by taking an awesome trip!
- If you get loaded up with homework, be sure to get it all done before you go on a trip. You don’t want to be doing schoolwork while travelling, since you will be way too distracted by all of the amazing things you get to see and do! And definitely don’t just blow off your homework. It won’t look good for you, your home school, and even your program if you fail all of your classes abroad.
Weekend Travelling: Most all of your travelling is going to be on the weekends. It just makes sense to travel on the weekends, since you have classes during the week (and you don’t want to be skipping). So what are some great tips on weekend travelling, you ask? Let’s find out.
- Towards the beginning part of your study abroad experience, try weekend travelling to nearby towns/cities to start off with. As time goes on, then you can start travelling farther and farther outward. This helps you get used to the transportation system that may be totally different than what you are used to (it usually is very different, but not hard to get used to).
- When planning for a trip, you can approach planning in two different ways. First, you can sit down and plan out your trip. Go online and find out things to do and what to see at your destination. The other option is to buy your ticket and just go without any planning involved. This is a popular option for people who like to day-trip. They get the idea in their head that they want to travel on the weekend, but they really don’t care where.
- Be sure to figure out what form of transportation is best for your trip. Is it a really short distance away? Consider renting a bike to get there! Is it too far to bike? Check out if the train can get you there. Is it in a totally different country? Look for some cheap flights to get there.
Local Fun: You know all of those cool spots that you found while you got lost during your first week? Well you shouldn’t forget about them! You are going to have a lot of free time during your weekdays, so why not go have some fun in your home city! Here are some ideas for you to try.
- After a while, you will have been to a bunch of different little hole-in-the-wall restaurants/street vendors. Soon you will find one that you’ll designate as “Your Spot”, since you will probably frequent going there more often than other places. Bring your friends there and get them hooked on the food you fell in love with!
- Plan big nights out with all of the friends that you have made in your program! Set a meeting point and then travel as a group to find some fun nightlife. It’s always best to walk around a city in a group, just to be safe (nowhere is perfect).
- If you are wanting to have some “you time”, then go out and find your own fun! Go visit a museum, relax at a park, or just go get lost again! Getting lost isn’t really as scary as you might think it is. It’s actually some of the best fun you can have abroad!
Saving Money: When students study abroad, they usually bring with them a comfortable amount of money to spend. That doesn’t mean that you should go and splurge all you have right away. It is vital that you learn to save money while abroad, otherwise you’ll be sending some very awkward messages to your parents about how you’ve gone broke. Let me help you out with a few saving tips.
- Easy way to save money? Don’t eat out all the time. Once in a while is fine, but you should really look into buying groceries at a local market and cooking for yourself. Local markets tend to be a lot cheaper than big supermarkets, so you should think about what you can acquire there first. Plus, the food you get at a local market 9 times out of 10 tastes WAY better than at a supermarket.
- Try to avoid the lavish life of shopping every day. Shopping for a few new outfits is a great idea, but not when you do it every week. Learn the art of window shopping and keep the wallet put away.
- If you like to visit a lot of museums, inquire about if your city has a universal museum pass. These can save you time and money, as they can get you into most museums for just the fee of the card. Also, check with your program to see if student museum passes are available. These can be cheaper than the regular universal pass, sometimes even free!
- When you are planning your trips, look around before settling on prices. If you do a lot of searching for air fares, hotel/hostel prices, train ticket prices, etc., then you are likely to come across a great deal. Never settle for the first price you see.
- Another great money saver for trips is couchsurfing! There are a few websites for couchsurfing out there, but in a nutshell, couchsurfing is where you find people in different cities that you travel to that are willing to let you crash on their couch for however long you are there. Be sure to look at reviews of the people who do this. If they are low on reviews or have a lot of bad reviews, it’s probably a good idea to move on.
Picture Madness: Studying abroad to another country is the trip of a lifetime for many college students, so obviously they have to document it with a ton of photos! While taking a lot of photos is great, you don’t want picture madness to take over. “Picture Madness” is when you are constantly taking pictures and documenting every little moment that you experience. If you spend all of your time in a camera lens, then you really miss out on the true experience. Here are some ways to cope with picture madness.
- Try to limit yourself to specific days that you go out and take pictures. If there is something special happening, such as a cultural event, then definitely take pictures. Just don’t spend every single day out clicking away on your camera.
- When people see you constantly taking pictures, they will automatically label you as a tourist. Your goal, when studying abroad, should try to be as less like a tourist as possible. So maybe don’t take a picture of EVERY building in the city, at least all at once.
- If your face is always looking through a camera lens, then you can be oblivious to other things around you, such as traffic. Be aware of your surroundings when taking your photos, otherwise that little distraction could end up with an angry cab driver yelling at you due to a near miss (and they will yell…and honk…and yell more.).
- Have you ever heard someone say “the picture doesn’t do it justice”? When it comes down to it, the most beautiful pictures we take are the ones we take with our eyes. They’re called memories, and you can’t beat that picture quality.
Communicating Back Home: You’ve hyped up this trip to everyone you know. Your friends, your family, even your teachers, and now your experiencing it. Since you’ve talked about it so much, you’ll want to give these people updates on your time abroad. Here are some great ways to communicate to others back home.
- Try and regularly post your most recent photos on your various social media pages. This is a great way for people to keep up with what kind of places that you have been visiting.
- Download a video call app, such as Skype or Facetime, and schedule a time to talk to people back home. Keep in mind of time zone differences when you schedule. It may be midday where you are and in the middle of the night where they are.
- Snapchat is an excellent app to keep people updated with random things going on in your life abroad. You can send specific photos/videos with short messages to people you choose or you can just post it “My Story” for everyone to see!
Wrapping Up The Experience: Here is the day that you didn’t want to think about and you never wanted to come. It’s finally time to wrap up your experience abroad and get ready to go back home. This time period can be a pretty emotional one. Here are some things that you should do before you leave.
- Make sure to connect with all of your new friends on social media, even exchange phone numbers with your closest ones. The friends that you make while studying abroad will be some of the closest friends you will ever have, as you all have shared a life-changing experience with each other.
- Usually your study abroad program will put on a “going away” party of sorts. Definitely go to that so you can hang out with all of your friends one last time in the city that you have come to call a “home away from home”.
- If you were with a homestay family, show how much you have appreciated staying with them.
- Take one last walk around your city. Go visit all of your favorite spots and relive all of the great times that you’ve had while there.
- DON’T MISS YOUR FLIGHT HOME!
Tips On Dealing With Your Return: And now it is officially over. You have returned home from a life-changing experience abroad. The question is, now what? It’s likely that you may be going through a phase called “Reverse Culture Shock”. This is when you are having to adjust back to your normal life after living in a different culture for so long. You may start comparing things at home to those of your home abroad. There are quite a few things you can do to help with this.
- Go to a re-entry conference. These conferences are specifically designed to help people get through reverse culture shock and readjust back to normal life. They are also a good way to help you learn how to apply your study abroad experience practically.
- Become an ambassador for your study abroad program! Did you have an amazing experience with your program provider? Volunteer to be an ambassador for them and help other students at your university go through a similar life-changing experience like you did.
- Work in your university’s study abroad office. Most universities’ study abroad offices have positions for student workers. If you really want to start helping other students find a way to study abroad and you want to get more into international education, then this is a great route to take.
- Start a blog! If you didn’t start one when you first left, then you should start one now. Your blog can be an outlet for all of your stories that you have tucked away in your brain. Don’t ever think that no one will want to read about your life. There are always people that are interested in the travel stories of other people.
- STUDY ABROAD AGAIN! If you are able, why not go again? The second time around could be just as fun!