Lucky duck that I am, I had the fortune to study abroad multiple times in college. My first time studying abroad in Florence, Italy, was a learning experience. When I decided to study abroad again in Thailand, I was able to take a lot from my first experience to make sure I picked a program better suited to my personal study abroad style. I was also able to do some things I'd wished I had done before, and avoid doing some things I had wished I hadn't done.
Even still, now that I am a few years out of college and into the "real world," I can look back on my study abroad experiences with a new perspective and see even more things I wish I had done a little bit differently. Becoming more involved in my host community and immersed in the host culture and language were two big stand-outs, but there a number of things that I now realize I could have done to really maximize my study abroad experience.
I definitely wouldn't say I have any regrets, but here is my best study abroad advice. Read on for the 25 things I wish I had done differently when I studied abroad:
Researched programs extensively. I took at face value the list of options my Study Abroad Office gave me, and I wish I had looked at a site like Go Overseas to compare options and read reviews from program alumni. I would've put in the extra legwork to get papers signed and credits transferred so I could do the study abroad program that best suited my academic goals.
Reflected more on what I wanted from my program provider. I found that I preferred a more integrated, hands-off (and cheaper!) program, which was not what my first study abroad experience was at all. Knowing what you want from your program from the start will make things go a lot smoother.
Gotten more involved in my host community. I didn't try to seek out volunteer or internship opportunities -- or even extracurricular sports or interest groups -- and I really wish I had. This is an important part of becoming immersed in the culture and feeling like your host city is really like a home.
Pushed myself to improve my language skills. It's so easy to fall back on English, especially if you're living with other study-abroaders. I wish I had tried harder to live completely in another language and to make the most of my language learning while abroad. Furthermore, I wish I had continued to practice my language skill when I returned home.
Studied somewhere offbeat. Italy was great, but it is one of the most popular study abroad destinations. Thailand was an improvement, but I sometimes wish I had pushed myself to go somewhere even more unique or off-the-beaten path, somewhere that makes people go, "You studied WHERE?" when I tell them about it. A strange, little-known country, or even just a really small, out-of-the-way town. Maybe even somewhere a little intimidating, where I would be constantly challenged.
Stayed longer. One semester is great, but what a difference one year could make. A semester flies by, but I think you could really call a place home, and really see a change in yourself, after you've lived abroad a year.
Made more local friends. The less integrated the school, the more effort required to meet locals. I interacted more with other Americans and foreign students than those from my host cities, and now I regret not having more of those connections.
Gone without expectations. It's hard not to have high expectations of your study abroad experience. Some days are just routine days, and that shouldn't be seen as disappointing. It's really pretty cool, if you think about it. While I felt I was pretty good at managing my expectations, I met far too many fellow study-abroaders who felt disappointed or couldn't adapt to even simple things, like not being able to split a restaurant check between four credit cards. Lower your expectations about things being out-of-this-world awesome every day, and lose your expectations altogether about things being just like at home.
Thought about the future. If I had had more direction, I probably could have made better use of my time and opportunities abroad and been able to use my study abroad experiences even more to further my career later. Bolstering a resume with study abroad experience is only as good as my experience was.
Taken classes more seriously. I learned a lot, but I could have learned more. Study abroad offers the chance to take some fascinating classes you might not be able to anywhere else in the world. At the very least, you'll gain a different perspective on a subject. It's always a good idea not to crash your GPA while studying abroad.
Gone solo. I had a friend that I studied abroad with twice (once on purpose, once by chance). I don't regret having shared my experiences with her, but there's something to be said for going into your study abroad experience not knowing anyone. With no crutch or familiar face, you're bound to meet more people, form closer connections, and go more out of your comfort zone. Studying abroad without friends would've been an experience unlike any other.
Tried a homestay. You get a real look into the culture, improve your language skills, and will get a totally different (probably more enriching) experience than most people. Though a homestay is more challenging, it would have made my overall study abroad experience more green friendly.
Packed less. I know it's cliche, but especially when I decided to go traveling after my programs and had to find somewhere to store my huge suitcase, I regretted packing so much. It's easier (and sometimes cheaper) to buy most things when you arrive. One girl came to Thailand with one backpack. That's it. It can be done!
Changed my bank account. I used my regular community bank to withdraw money from ATMs when I was abroad. I could have saved myself literally hundreds of dollars if I had changed my bank to one like Capital One, which doesn't charge foreign ATM fees OR foreign currency exchange fees when you withdraw money abroad. (The same goes for a credit card.)
Gone without Internet, or at least limited my time. I wish I hadn't set up Internet in my apartment. Instead of taking myself out of my new world, my time would have been better spent out exploring my host city and meeting new people. Be mindful of your internet use while abroad.
Done a research project. It's great if you can do this officially through your university and gain credit and support, but it's not necessary if you can really commit yourself to the project. Pick a subject you're interested in related to your destination and investigate it. Not only will this be something great to show for yourself later (showing initiative, authority and research skills), but it will allow you to see your host city or country in a new light and learn about one part of it more deeply than most people ever will. This would also have been a great item to showcase on any future grad school applications.
Kept a blog. I wish I had taken the time to keep up a blog and write some thoughtful pieces on my experience. Even though I kept a journal, it is harder to go back and look at, and it is not as thoughtful and edited as a blog probably would have been. This is also great to show for yourself later, and you never know what other doors it might open, or what new passions it might help you discover.
Directly enrolled in a university abroad. The idea of it terrified me at the time, but I can't think of a better way to get the most out of your experience and feel at home abroad.
Traveled solo. It's fun to spend weekends traveling with friends, but take at least one weekend all to yourself and go explore somewhere new alone. When I did this, I met amazing people and gained a whole new kind of confidence and sense of independence.
Been more outgoing. There's definitely something about being abroad that brings out a more outgoing side to even the shyest person. I regularly found myself chatting up people on the train or in a line that I normally might not talk to. But even still, I wish I had pushed myself even more - starting as early as when I arrived at the airport. Why didn't I try to learn a little more about the cashier at my usual supermarket or the baker down the street? I'm sure they had fascinating stories and useful advice to share.
Stayed with locals. When I traveled, I usually stayed in hostels or guesthouses. While this was fun, and I met some cool people, my experiences staying with locals were much more fulfilling. If you don't know anyone in your host country, try CouchSurfing. Not to mention this saves you money!
Been more vigilant. I'm not saying be paranoid, but don't get so comfortable that you completely forget where you are and that not everyone is trustworthy. Luckily for me, the worst thing that happened to me was theft. But if I had been more vigilant (or had a few less drinks), one incident in particular could have been easily avoided. And I would have a lot more pictures of gorgeous Thai islands!
Tried eating everything. Generally, I'm pretty good at trying new things. While I think I did a pretty good job of eating my way around Italy and Thailand -- I even took a Thai cooking class -- but I somehow still felt I came back from these two food-obsessed countries knowing less than I should have. I fell into habits of eating my favorite dishes, which is fine, but I wish I had pushed myself to try everything I could get my hands on, and maybe even kept a food journal so I would remember all those special dishes.
Splurged once in a while. I'm thrifty (read: cheap) by nature, but even today I regret missing out on paragliding through the Swiss Alps, along with some other activities or attractions, which I deemed too expensive. Some things truly are must-do or once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, so budget for them.
Always lived in the moment. It's a simple as that. Don't ever forget where you are and how amazing this opportunity is. Constantly take in your surroundings and notice how you feel. Make a mental note of how your favorite bakery smells, how each local dish tastes, how the breeze feels sitting on your favorite park bench. Imprint it all in your mind, forget about everything else, and savor the moment!
Every study abroad experience is different and unique but there are plenty of ways to make your experience right for you. Studying abroad can be so exciting that you sometimes get overwhelmed and lose sight of what's important, like learning about a new culture and making connections with locals. Keep these 25 things in mind when you study abroad to help make the most of your experience.
What did you do to prepare when you studied abroad? Do you have any regrets? What could you do to become more immersed in the culture? What would you do differently if you studied abroad again?
Suggested Study Abroad Programs
- IAU College
- SACI Studio Art Centers
- SPI Study Abroad
- CEA Study Abroad
- API Study Abroad
Photo Credits: Author, Rachael Taft and Megan Lee