As an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to study abroad twice, one summer in Mexico and one summer in Spain. The two experiences were very different and I learned about traveling and study abroad through trial and error. Learn from my experiences and have a smooth transition into a life abroad.
How to Choose a Program
There are different ways to study abroad and it is important to be knowledgeable about the options. For example, in Mexico I prepared and traveled alone. When I arrived, I met other students from the United States, but no one from my school. For my Spain study abroad trip, I traveled with a group from my university. Prior to the trip we met once a month for the entire semester to discuss details. There are pros and cons to each type of travel. Your goals for studying abroad will help you decide which type is best for you.
The major benefit of this type of study abroad is that you do not have friends and classmates to depend on. This is useful if your goal for studying abroad is to learn a new language. Without others to speak English to, you will likely learn the other language more quickly because you are forced to use it more often.
Safety is a major benefit of traveling with a group to study abroad. I traveled with a group from the United States to Spain, roomed with another member of the group, and did all other activities as a group while we were abroad. In a foreign country, it does feel safer to be with people who are familiar and who understand you.
I personally preferred the group travel. I liked being with people I knew and we had a lot of structured activities put together by our guide. I saw much more of the country than I would have if I went independently.
Preparation is the key to success for a study abroad trip. Take time to consider what type of experience you hope to have and then start searching for the trip that will most closely meet those expectations.
Before You Go
The night before I left for Spain I decided to check for my necessities one last time. I got out everything I would need at the airport and realized that I did not have my passport. It was ten o’clock at night and I discovered that I left my passport two hours away at my parent’s house. In my excitement of getting ready for the trip, I literally forgot THE most important item! Thankfully, my parents are awesome and met me halfway so I did not have to drive the full two hours.
Like many normal college students, I let procrastination get the best of me while I was preparing for the trip. My missing passport could have easily prevented me from going on the trip if I did not find it. Months before the trip, I received a list of necessary but I did not look at it until the day before I was set to leave. Use the list-or make your own if necessary-and locate the items as early as possible. For example, if you realize three months before leaving that your passport will expire while you are abroad, then you have time to try and resolve that issue. However, if you realize that the night before you leave-or while you are abroad-it could be enough to derail the entire trip.
As you prepare, do not let procrastination cause stress and possibly prevent you from going on the trip. Plan far in advance, so when travel day arrives, you can enjoy the excitement and anticipation for your new adventure.
Classes While Abroad
The type of classes you take while abroad will depend on many factors, including whether you chose an independent or group trip. During my independent study abroad, I had several different teachers who were all native to the country I was studying in. There were different students in each class and I was on an actual campus.
For the group study abroad, I took class with all the students I traveled with and we met in an office building. All the classes, except one, were taught by the professor who traveled with us from the United States. Just like independent vs. group travel, the type of school you attend while abroad depends on your preference.
The most important piece of advice I have about classes while studying abroad is-go to class! This is an important point to remember because it is easy to get distracted by the excitement of being in a foreign country. Ultimately, you are not there on vacation, you are there to study. Going on vacation would be much cheaper because you do not have to pay for the courses. You do not want to get home from the trip and pay to retake the classes because you failed while studying abroad. If you go to class every day, it will be much easier to keep up and make a good grade in the courses. When your classwork is taken care of, you will have the ability to enjoy yourself during your free time without worry. Whether you travel independently or with a group, try and find a study partner. You can help each other with the course work and hold each other responsible to getting everything finished.
Food and Fun
Going to class is important while studying abroad, but so is having fun. If you go to Spain, but never explore any of the country because you are working the whole time, that is a tragedy! For many people, a study abroad trip is a once in a lifetime experience. Take some time to explore, meet new people, have new experiences and see new sights. Immerse yourself in the culture and try to experience life from a different point of view.
Try the food! It is possible to avoid trying the local cuisine in most places. If you are in a semi-metropolitan area, more than likely you will be able to find some familiar fast food chains. Do not give into the temptation to stay with the familiar. If you live with a host family, try the food they prepare. Go to local restaurants and eat something you have never tried. I found several new favorites on my trip to Spain, and to this day the best steak and hamburger I have ever eaten were during stays in Mexico.
One night in Spain I went with the group for a midsummer celebration on the beach. Everyone builds a fire and hangs out until midnight when you run into the ocean and jump over the waves. I went and enjoyed myself, but wanted to go home around one a.m. No one else was ready to leave but the buses were running all night so I thought it would be alright to go alone. After the bus ride I had to walk a few blocks to my host home. I decided to get a cab for such a short distance. As I was walking, I noticed a man walking parallel to me one street over. He was looking at me but I was trying not to be paranoid. We lost sight of each other because there were buildings between us. At the next intersection I saw him walking as I passed. I was starting to get nervous because I had to walk through a vacant, unlit lot before getting to my host apartment. When I passed the last building and stepped into the vacant lot, I saw him again. He was on the other side of the building, standing still and facing my direction. It was like he was waiting for me. When I saw that, I immediately turned around and started running in the opposite direction. I saw a man and woman and ran right up to them and asked where to get a cab. I walked close behind them until I was able to get a cab and be dropped off directly in front of the apartment.
I still wonder sometimes what could have happened to me that night. He could have robbed me, raped me and killed me in that dark vacant lot. There is also the possibility that I overreacted and he meant no harm. However, I put myself in a possibly dangerous situation. It was the middle of the night and I was traveling completely alone in a foreign country. When you study abroad, you must be even more diligent about safety than you are at home, because you are in unfamiliar surroundings with an unfamiliar language. To increase safety, take time to plan your outings and make sure you are prepared for emergencies. Become familiar with emergency numbers in the area and carry enough money to pay for a taxi if you find yourself in a questionable situation. Always try to travel with another person if possible. This is an easy task if you are traveling with a group. However, if you are studying abroad individually, try and find another student who would be willing to see the local sites with you.
Studying abroad is a wonderful opportunity and can be a great way to learn about languages and other cultures. Careful planning will ensure that you find a trip that suits your needs and enjoy your time abroad safely.