Studying abroad can be both an exciting and a nerve-wracking time. After all, you are going to fly off to another country (and likely another continent!) on your own and navigate life in a different culture for an entire semester. So, if you are still undecided about spending a semester abroad or if you have filled out all the paperwork and are waiting in anticipation of your upcoming adventure, keep reading for my takeaways from a semester abroad!
I spent the spring 2018 semester in Bordeaux, France studying French politics and history through the Middlebury Language program. As a French minor, I chose a program that was conducted entirely in French, requiring me to sign a language pledge promising not to use English on the program, take a full course load in French, and live with a French host family for five months.
Needless to say, my language skills improved tremendously, and I returned to the U.S. with fantastic memories and tales of exciting (and occasionally awkward) experiences. You’ve probably heard upperclassmen talking about how “study abroad changed their life” at some point during your academic career. As corny as it sounds, it is a pretty accurate depiction of the experience, but not in the ways you might think. You don’t come back a completely changed person with an acquired taste for expensive cheeses, but you do learn things about yourself that are more difficult to understand in a less tumultuous, comfortable environment in the comfort of your home.
So, here are the five things I learned while abroad:
1. You don’t need to worry as much about academics
Here’s a fun fact that will instantly sell you on signing up for a semester abroad–school is easier. Disclaimer: this claim is not representative of every study abroad program out there, but it is true that on the whole, you can get away with giving yourself more breathing space when it comes to studying.
It is quite possible that your study abroad grades may not factor into your overall college GPA. But even if they do, the performance expectations take into account the fact that you have been placed into an unfamiliar environment, often taking classes in a language that’s not your own.
Professors tend to be understanding about the challenges such an experience poses and, of course, your desire to explore your destination country and imbibe its culture as much as possible. Thus, you may find yourself with fewer homework assignments or fewer classroom hours.
Study abroad is a chance for you to be educated beyond the classroom, so don’t think of this time as an opportunity to binge that Netflix show you’ve never had time for. Go out there and explore!
2. You need to take advantage of the language environment
Chances are, you won’t be completely alone on your study abroad program. There will likely be other American students–whether from your university or other schools–for you to interact with. If you are traveling to a non-English-speaking country, it can be tempting to band together and ignore the locals in order to feel somewhat safe in the familiar American cocoon. Don’t stay in the cocoon!
This semester is a potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for you to experience a totally different culture first hand, which involves your stepping out of your comfort zone and making an effort to speak a new language, making silly mistakes, and trying again. Even if you are just a beginner, you can take baby steps by conversing with your host family or non-American classmates for a few minutes every day. The key is proving to yourself that you can do it, however bad your pronunciation may be at first. Once you get over that initial fear, it will get easier with every passing day.
3. Don’t put off exploring until the last minute
When you get to your host country, you may be just a little overwhelmed with the overabundance of things to do, places to see, and foods to try. A common part of the study abroad experience is to use one’s proximity to a plethora of different countries to travel around the region over weekends and holiday breaks.
Even as you wander through your city every day, you may be planning trips to unseen corners of the globe and putting off that trip to a local museum. Before you know it, you’ll be packing your bags for good and flying home, that local museum still unexplored. I am certainly guilty of prioritizing exciting adventures around Europe over taking the time to get to know the less well-known corners of Bordeaux. There was a regional history museum that I passed by every day on the way to class and never went into because there was always something more pressing or more interesting to do.
Don’t make the same mistake and really get to know the place where you’ll be spending five months of your life before you branch out to new cities and countries.
4. You can handle a lot more than you think you can
This is perhaps the most important and “life-changing” lesson of any study abroad experience. As you prepare for your trip, you are bound to feel anxious and uncertain, wondering if you made the right decision. Study abroad prompts you to do many things you hadn’t done before–from opening a bank account or purchasing a SIM card to figuring out which groceries you need to make a healthy meal to approaching strangers who don’t speak your language because your phone died (and the GPS with it) to sending international mail.
As you tackle these challenges, you may feel stressed out, overwhelmed, and frustrated. But one day as you’re trying to explain to the local doctor how your throat hurts, you will suddenly realize that you’ve made it, that you can do all the scary things you never thought you would be able to do. And that’s a realization that will affect the rest of your time at college and the rest of your life.
5. You know a lot less than you think you do
At the same time as it teaches you that you can overcome many challenges, study abroad will also humble you. You may arrive with many preconceived notions of the country’s culture and its people and quickly realize that everything you read in textbooks and heard on TV is an incomplete imitation of what it’s really like to live in your host country.
You will be reminded again and again that even things you think that you know well–whether that’s a verb conjugation, a local custom, or navigating public transport–may not be as obvious as you assumed. Don’t let this discourage you or convince you that you are doing something wrong, that you don’t deserve to be here. Pay attention and learn from your surroundings and accept the fact that you cannot know or prepare for everything.
Study abroad can become one of the most important experiences you have college, and it is not a decision to be taken lightly. Before you commit, you need to consider how the program would fit with your academic trajectory, what value it would add to your education, and how it would affect your finances. But if you do decide to take the leap and travel thousands of miles to a place of your dreams, I wish you the best of luck and hope that you come back a changed person!
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