Whether you’re jetting off to an exotic Eastern European locale or spending a service semester in Latin America, all study-abroad endeavors have one thing in common: They bring every student, regardless of his or her age, right back to freshman year.
When most freshmen arrive on campus, they are nervous, out of their element and prone to mistakes. Students studying abroad arrive at their host country and find themselves plagued by freshman insecurities all over again.
The difference is that while abroad, students typically only have three months — rather than four years — to learn how to navigate the shaky ground of a foreign environment.
With such a short time frame, consider these six tips to make the best of your semester abroad:
Make sure to spend more time enjoying your experiences than documenting them.
1. Don’t segregate yourself.
Travel blogger Adam Groffman had a hard time getting out of what he calls the “study-abroad bubble” during his semesters in London and Sydney, so he struck out on his own.
“The people I met on my program pretty much stuck together, so finding friends outside of the group was the biggest challenge,” said Groffman, who started going to local indie music shows to meet new people.
“Studying abroad forces you to expand your horizons, but I always tried to take it one step further,” Groffman said. “The occasional night out alone always led to an interesting story the next day — and even some lasting friendships.”
2. Don’t over-pack.
When you’re desperately trying to decipher enough German to make the next Eurorail out of Berlin, the last thing you need is a 25-pound suitcase dragging you down.
“Pack light, because nobody looks good backpacking,” said Ally Davidson, 21, a Boston College student studying English who studied in London. “You’ll quickly learn that being high maintenance is a burden to both yourself and others.”
3. Learn to rely on your instincts.
“One of my favorite days in Prague was the day that I had no plan as to where I was going,” said Max Dutrum, 22, a 2012 graduate of Loyola University Chicago.
“It takes a little bit of guts to decide that today, you’re going to wander a city that you aren’t familiar with, but the journey makes it worth it. Getting lost also forces you to talk to the locals and see what life is like for them,” Dutrum said.
4. Don’t be afraid of traveling solo — even if you’re a woman.
“Traveling solo can be one of the most rewarding experiences of any woman’s life,” said Beth Whitman, the founder of the women’s travel blog, Wanderlust and Lipstick.
“It’s in those times of adversity — a lost passport, a stolen backpack or getting on the wrong bus — that you discover your inner strengths and end up feeling stronger,” Whitman said.
Don’t spend hours updating your social media accounts to make sure everyone knows what a good time you’re having.
Social platforms offer a built-in support system for students abroad, but “there’s an aspect of it that is bordering on mercenary,” said Monica Robertson, a public relations and marketing manager at University Studies Abroad Consortium.
“To be obsessed with keeping Facebook, Twitter and Instagram so up-to-date that one forgets to actually walk and talk and be away from the screen” is one of the biggest mistakes students make, Robertson said.
“Your time abroad is short and sweet,” she said. “You don’t want to waste it online.”
6. Distance yourself from what you know
“The number-one mistake is remaining in your comfort zone,” said Johnny Ward, who studied abroad three times — in England, Thailand and Malaysia — and now runs the travel blog OneStep4ward.
Ward’s list of habits to avoid includes “eating food no different to the mall back home and still downloading [American shows like] Dexter and Game of Thrones.”
“I always hated it when people would order a cheap American beer instead of an Irish beer — I mean, the Guinness factory is literally 10 minutes away,” said 2012 Boston University graduate Eric Baker, 21, who studied abroad in Dublin.
“If you don’t let yourself be immersed in where you are, you’ll never have that truly fulfilling adventure abroad,” said Baker.
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