Already causing a ruckus on the plane
A year ago, all I could think about was fast- forwarding the time until I would board the plane for my semester in Africa. As that fantasy grew closer to being reality, it seemed like every spare minute I had was packed with scheduling doctor's appointments for shots, buying last- minute culturally appropriate clothing, and reciting my 'I'm so excited to study abroad' speech to every well-meaning adult I talked to. Even though I felt like I had explained every part of my upcoming semester to everyone I saw, I had never really taken the time to think about who I was going to be spending that semester with. It wasn't until I left my parents at security and approached my gate at the airport that I began to have serious doubts--what if I didn't click with anyone here? What if they had all already been at the gate for an hour and were now best friends?
At first, it was every bit as awkward as I had feared. 32 nervous and overwhelmed students from different colleges all around the country (thrown together in an airport an hour before flying off into the unknown) is not exactly a recipe for instant friendship. However, as you should remind yourself if you are in a similar situation, we all had at least one similar interest; the desire to travel and experience something completely different.
While at the airport, it's easy to hole up in your own little electronic device and plug into Facebook, talking to your friends back home about how much you already miss them. But we are here to say DON'T! Everyone in your program is going to be feeling at least somewhat out of their element and will be just as eager to make friends as you are. While it may be awkward at first, take comfort in knowing it will fade away. Here are some ideas for starting these new friendships on the right foot!
- Spot other scared (er, excited) looking college-aged students sitting alone at your gate.
Hang back to further decide if those students are embarking on the same program as you or not. Look for hints, such as API Study Abroad gear, informational pamphlets on the program, a map of your final destination, etc. If you find a small group of students is already chatting, eavesdrop a bit before you...
- Make your (grand) entrance.
Okay, it does not necessarily have to be grand. A big smile, a "Hello!" and an "Are you studying abroad with such and such program?" will probably do the trick (arriving on horseback may also be memorable). Worst case scenario, they will tell you no and you will walk away with your tail between your legs. Otherwise, its time to embrace the name games and first-date-like small talk! If you still have hours to wait before boarding, pass the time by playing a big game of...
- Big Booty and Zip Zap Zoom
If you ever feel tempted to blow off those painful ice-breaker games that camp counselors seem to love, stop, step away from your old self, and remember that you are studying abroad for a reason (new experiences)! While my group was waiting to board for Johannesburg, we played some intense games of Zip Zap Zoom and Big Booty. We were already bonding over our giggles and feeling amused by the confused outsiders. With the inside jokes already piling up, it was high-time we...
- Create a group #hashtag and send off your final tweets from America!
Twitter is an instant record keeper of all the #fun and #random adventures you will share with your study abroad group. While you could use a standard, generic hashtag (#apilondon), I say get creative; use a tag that someone not on your trip could never easily understand. Creating your own hashtag is a great way for quickly collecting your new friends' Twitter contacts and to instantly begin the jokes. RT @NewFriend leaving O'hare, our flight attendant looks JUST like Homer Simpson... too soon to crack donut jokes? #goodstart #off2england #seeyalaterUSA.
Whether you are doing a program with 20 or 100 people, or whether you're studying abroad through your university or with an unaffiliated program, the stress of a new situation is bound to cause tensions and feelings of homesickness. Not being 100% comfortable with your fellow students can detract from your experience at first, when everything is new and you are searching for something familiar and safe. But even though we are all very different people, all of the students in my study abroad group became so close by the end because of our incredible shared experiences (even the silly ones that started back in the USA) in the airport.
By our final flight, we were ALL buddies!
Open yourself up to friendships with everyone, even people that you ordinarily wouldn't gravitate toward. While it may be easier to take refuge in your connections to friends and family at home, make the effort to put yourself out there and talk to people. Believe me when I say from experience that all too soon you will find yourself back home with a completely new perspective on life, and a new network of some of the closest friends you will ever make. Time spent abroad is going to fly by, and every second spent shutting yourself away and pining for home is a second wasted.
Now, I don't just have friends from all over the world - I have friends from all over the US!