1) Take unique classes
Why do people study abroad? A big part of it is to have the experience of living somewhere new, but it’s also to go to a different school for a semester! Take advantage of being at a new school and try to take classes you wouldn’t be able to at home.
I enjoyed my study abroad classes on Romantic and Victorian literature, primarily because the books and poetry we were reading was written in, and often inspired by, the country where I was living. But the class where I learned and experienced the most was “Art in Venice” because there was nothing similar I could have taken back in Minnesota. I wish I had selected more unique classes instead of opting for generic literature courses I could have taken at home.
If you are able to be flexible with your major requirements, try to find classes that connect to the place where you are studying, have unique topics, or have professors that are very experienced in their field. At the very least, choose electives that you might not otherwise take. The more varied and interesting your learning experience, the better your overall time abroad will be. If you begin a class and find you don’t enjoy it, either stick it out—you might end up being surprised—or just switch! There’s no reason to waste your time on a class you aren’t at least somewhat interested in.
2) Invest in your studies
It’s easy to focus on friends and traveling and let your studies fall through the cracks. But you are in school to learn, so don’t coast in your classes.
I didn’t pressure myself to get A’s, since my study abroad grades would be returned to my home university as pass/fail. But I wish I had done more of the assigned reading than I did. I’m passionate about art and literature, and this was an opportunity to learn more about those things in depth. Towards the end of the semester, I was more and more tempted to skip class. I forced myself to go, and that was when my Romantic lit course started getting super interesting (I had kind of hated it up to that point).
By the end of the semester, I didn’t want the class to be over. I wish I had put more time and effort into the reading and writing assignments early on; maybe I would have gotten more out of the first few months of the class if I had been invested from the start.
Investment applies to learning experiences outside the classroom, too. If you’re living in or visiting a country where they speak a different language, don’t let yourself speak English all the time. Try using the other language as much as possible. I also wish I’d done more creative writing inspired by what I read in class. Find places to visit in your host country or activities to do in your spare time that connect to your studies; it will make classroom time, both abroad and back at home, much more meaningful.
3) Get involved on campus
I found it kind of difficult to meet local students. I mostly hung out with and went to events for international students.
One way to combat this is to join student groups. I volunteered as an editor for the campus literary magazine during my semester abroad. I was only involved for a short time, but I got to read a lot of stories written by British students and get a better idea of their lives and interests. It was a much different way of spending my time than the traveling and exploring I was usually doing, but it taught me a lot about the place where I was living—and it was good experience for the career field I want to go into.
4) Spend time with people who are different from you
I was happy to meet a few close friends in my program who I felt were pretty similar to me—for example, they much preferred books to partying—but the friendships that challenged me the most and also taught me the most were with people who were very different from me.
I traveled and shared a room for two weeks with a girl whose views on faith were pretty much the opposite of mine. It helped teach me how to talk about faith with people whose backgrounds and beliefs are different. We had a few conversations about faith where we both felt respected and heard by one another. The experience also helped me to think more about my life choices and why I believe what I do.
I was also friends with a girl who had a disability. I hadn’t really run into that before; I was used to prioritizing my comfort and wants and not factoring in that someone else might need help or might have to make a different plan based on their limitations. There were areas I could have been a better friend to her, which I regret; but through the process I learned a lot about helping others, and next time I’m confident I can be a better friend.
5) Explore creatively
Even if you can’t travel to a new place every weekend (and if you can: do it!!), you can still be intentional with seeing and doing as much as possible in your host country or city. Plan out local activities, customs, foods, or places you want to try, and fill your free time with them. I almost never ventured farther than the mall in town on the mid-week days when I didn’t have class, and I wish I had taken advantage of those short periods of free time to explore more of the nearby towns and countryside.
6) Travel alone at least once
Once you’ve navigated a new place all by yourself, you will be much more confident doing it again in the future. Solo travel teaches you to problem-solve, be resourceful, interact with strangers, stay safe, and manage loneliness—all valuable life skills to take home with you.
Plus, solo travel feels very different from traveling with friends, and you might find you really enjoy it.
7) Say yes to new experiences
I remember meeting a girl in one of my classes at my home university who said she was doing a “year of yes.” This meant that anything anyone asked her to try or participate in during that year—she said yes. When a friend asked if she wanted to fly to New York City over spring break to see Hamilton, off she went. I was very impressed because at that point I hadn’t really traveled, and spending a few hundred dollars on a trip to New York without any family members was way out of my comfort zone.
My semester abroad wasn’t my “year of yes”; the months after I got home were. I started to learn that I was stubbornly set in my ways. I was pretty sure I hated cooking and arcade games and crafts and exercising, so I just never did those things…until I reluctantly agreed to try them with a person I was dating and found I actually really enjoyed them. Instead of saying, “No, I don’t want to,” I challenged myself to say, “Yeah, let’s try it!” with a smile on my face.
There aren’t too many things I feel like I missed out on when I was studying abroad, but I definitely wasn’t in a “yes” mindset. I wanted to eat foods I already knew I liked; I wanted to see the things that were on my list and not the things that weren’t. I didn’t go with most of my friends to the Harry Potter studio tour in London because I wasn’t into Harry Potter. I didn’t go on the London Eye Ferris wheel because it wasn’t something I felt super excited about. But what if I had said yes to those things? Sure, they costed money, but maybe I would have learned something really interesting at the studio tour. Maybe the view from the London Eye would have been mind-blowing.
I don’t think that saying yes is about doing EVERYTHING or overbooking yourself in the name of having a well-rounded experience, and it’s definitely not about forcing yourself to do things you find unpleasant or uncomfortable. It’s more about being open to things that normally make you hesitant. If your knee-jerk reaction to something is to say no, try examining why you are saying no. If it’s just because “no” has been your answer in the past or because you don’t want to be bothered, consider pushing yourself and saying yes this time instead.
8) Keep a written record of your trip
Though plenty of my relatives asked if I would keep a journal or blog during my semester in England, I decided (ironically) that blogging wasn’t for me. I thought that the photos I took would be enough to remember my trip by.
I really regret it!
You don’t have to record all the details of every day, but after keeping a small journal on my most recent solo trip, I value being able to look back on it and remember the thoughts and feelings I had about the places I visited.
Even if you aren’t really a writer, try jotting down a few key moments, thoughts, or emotions from each day of travel. Write down your favorite things that you see and do. These notes will supplement your photos—the specific memories of which might fade faster than you want them to.
What did you do to make the most of your time abroad?
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