Don’t Do These 5 Things When Studying Abroad
Before you pack your suitcases, it can be easy to idealize the life you’re going to live in Paris, Rome, or Beijing, but the reality is, once you land in your new temporary home abroad, you can quickly become intimidated by the reality of living in a new place.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of spending all your time with your fellow study abroad participants, speaking English and being tourists together. It’s comfortable.
But you’re not just going abroad to get away from your home university and travel the world, you’re going abroad to experience a new culture, a new country, and a new way of seeing. So when you do get off the plane in a new place, ready to spend the next six months immersed in a new language, make sure you don’t end up doing these five things:
1. Hang out with all Americans.
When you study abroad in an American program, it can be really tempting to make friends with the people in your program and to hang out primarily with other American students. It’s easy. They’re fun.
And because you share a class, a program, and a native language, you already have a lot in common.
But if you spend most of your time abroad hanging out with other Americans, you can miss lots of opportunities to make friends in your host country and to truly experience life abroad. If you always sit with the other students from your program when you go to your local university class, for example, you’re missing out on an opportunity to talk to local students, see what they think of the class and the teacher, and make international friends. The other students may think you don’t speak the local language very well, or that you aren’t willing to make an effort to talk to them.
The Solution: There’s nothing bad about making friends with the people in your program and hanging out with them from time to time, but don’t use it as an excuse to avoid meeting new people. Sit next to local students in your university classes, and make conversation before and after class. Ask questions, talk about the class, comment on the recent soccer game (don’t forget to call it football), and your experience in class will be much more pleasant.
2. Speak mostly English.
If you’re hanging out with mostly Americans, it can also be really hard to find opportunities to practice your foreign language skills if you’re in a non-English speaking country. Especially if you’re walking around in a group, restaurant owners, shopkeepers, and pretty much everyone you run into will try to speak to you in English, making it really difficult to force yourself to practice.
And you’re not studying abroad to give restaurant owners a chance to practice their English.
The Solution: It’s impossible to avoid going out with Americans altogether, since you do want to make friends in your program, but try going out in smaller groups. When you’re a really big group and it’s obvious you’re tourists or study abroad students, it’s really tempting to speak English and to encourage the people you interact with to use English as well.
This is exactly what you want to avoid.
But if you’re in a smaller group, of 2-4 people, it’s easier to be quieter, blend in with your surroundings, and even speak the local language amongst yourselves.
Other tips? If your program has a language pledge, requiring you to speak the local language, respect it. It will help your language skills immensely (even if you’re practicing with someone who doesn’t speak as well as you do) and it will force you to interact with locals in their language.
And when you make friends in your local university classes, invite them along. It’s rude to speak English if someone in the group doesn’t speak it, so you’ll be forced to communicate in the local language.
3. Be too shy to join a local student group.
By far the best way to make lasting friendships with local university students is to join a student group at the university where you’re studying. Not only will you meet other students with whom you share a common interest, you’ll also gain a social life automatically, by participating in meetings, projects, outings, and events with the group, and get lots of opportunities to practice your language skills.
But I can already hear you protest that you’re only studying abroad for a semester, you don’t have time, your language skills aren’t good enough… You have a hundred pretexts for not joining a local student group, but that’s what they are: pretexts.
In a series of interviews I recently did with university groups in Paris, all of the group leaders were excited about the possibility of having exchange student members, even if they were only there for a semester, and all were willing to help newly arrived students integrate into university life and to practice their language skills.
The Solution: Stop playing mind games and get real about why you’re studying abroad. If learning a new language and culture and having a once-in-a-lifetime experience are on your list of reasons, you need to stop making excuses for why you can’t join a student group. If you have time for extracurricular activities in your home university, you definitely have time for an activity during your semester abroad, so talk to your advisor, talk to other students in your classes, and join something. You’ll make friends and you won’t regret it!
4. Travel somewhere else every weekend.
Studying abroad in Europe makes it really easy to travel to a lot of different countries, and it’s easy to want to travel every weekend and to see as much as you can all over the place. The problem is that by traveling all the time, you remain in tourist mode, and you can miss out on a lot of the great things about actually living in a new place.
You’ll stay a tourist in your host city, only seeing the big monuments and the most famous museums.
And you’ll miss getting to know the vendors at the Saturday morning market, seeing the cute waiter at that cafe you like to study at on Sunday mornings, and exploring the lesser-known neighborhoods and museums in your city.
The Solution: It would be equally insane not to travel at all during your semester abroad, so in order to benefit from both your host city and your proximity to everything, I propose a compromise: Try to travel no more than one weekend per month outside of your host country. Leave one weekend per month for doing day trips and excursions inside your host country – to other cities or famous tourist attractions – and dedicate the rest to hanging out with friends from that student group you joined and truly getting to know your host city.
5. Take the easiest classes.
Now before you go signing up for the easiest classes your program has to offer so you can go off and travel, join lots of student activities, and practice your language skills, consider some of the other reasons you wanted to study abroad. Surely you want to gain some perspective, recover from your sophomore slump, and rekindle your interest in your field.
If you take the easiest classes instead of the classes you’re interested in, you’re relegating yourself to a semester of being disinterested and unmotivated in academics. And when you get back to your home university, it’ll be that much harder to gear up for finishing your major requirements and ending your college career on a high note.
The Solution: Take one or two easy classes to make sure you have a reasonable load, but remember to take classes that interest you and that have to do with your major. You can gain a lot of perspective by learning about your major while abroad, because foreign universities may teach topics in a different order, with a different slant, or in a different way than your home university does. It can be inspiring to be exposed to diverse views, and you can even find a subject you’d like to study more in-depth in your senior thesis or in doing a graduate degree.
You’ll return to school refreshed, invigorated, and excited to tackle the rest of your major classes.