Europe is an incredibly alluring backdrop for students studying abroad, with its dreamy architecture, rich heritage, and the opportunity to learn Romance languages from native speakers. And while cities in Europe have centuries of history to absorb, they are also evolving metropolitans with fresh outlooks on cuisine, art, and nightlife.
Going overseas as a student can be incredibly daunting and stressful because you'll want to soak up as much as you can while adjusting to a new environment. When I first moved overseas to study in Paris as an undergraduate, I was so anxious and overwhelmed by the city I had held on a pedestal that I missed out on a lot of opportunities to really embrace Parisian and French culture.
By the time I returned for graduate school a few years later, I was better equipped to interact with the local culture and understand the nuances of the language and the people that surrounded me -- something that is crucial to getting the most out of your overseas experience. The below list are mistakes I've made and witnessed others make, and by avoiding them you are sure to return home with a fresh outlook and stories to tell for years to come.
1. Not Learning the Local Language
Brushing up on useful phrases before you go gives you a great head start when moving overseas, but interacting with locals is the best way to truly master a language. Forcing yourself to speak the local language with everyone from your barista to the butcher will make you comfortable with the language intricacies, slang, and vernacular -- all things that you can’t learn as easily in a classroom.
Though it may be tempting to let them practice their English with you, you will have a much more enriching experience and learn more from them in their native language. Remember: learning a language takes time and you may fumble from time to time, but locals definitely appreciate the effort.
2. Making Friends Only with Students from Your Home Country
Other Anglophone students can be comforting companions when living overseas, especially when it comes to struggling with the same cultural barriers and red-tape bureaucracy. But reaching out and trying to make friends with students from the country where you are studying is key to truly experiencing a new country. It also exposes you to interesting cultural traditions and trivia that only a native would know. (The same applies for dating!)
These friendships are also a low-stress way to practice the language with someone who can correct your mistakes and pronunciation over a few glasses of wine (which, come on, is way better than a classroom anyway).
3. Traveling Too Much
With many low-cost airlines and train routes available throughout Europe, it can be tempting to pack your bags and hop to another nearby city as soon as the weekend hits. But this constant traveling can mean that you lose out on experiencing what the city you’re living in offers in terms of entertainment, nightlife, and weekend activities.
Maybe there is a cute open-air market at the end of your block on Sunday mornings, or a club that transforms into a concert venue on weekends. Staying put more than traveling gives a much deeper experience of one culture and city, rather than many fleeting, short experiences. It also helps build deeper friendships with those you’ve met in town.
4. Not Traveling Enough
That said, it would be a shame to be an hour flight from Rome and miss the opportunity to take it. Prioritizing a few key trips you’d like to take while you are studying overseas is a great way to really narrow down the cities you want to see the most, and not get trapped seeing any city that offers a good flight deal.
Traveling less frequently also means your budget can stretch a little further, and you can eat the best cacio e pepe or hike along the coast of the Mediterranean in Cinque Terre (or, at the very least, you hopefully won’t be trapped in the sleaziest hostel in town).
5. Not Living with a Host Family
If your study abroad program offers this -- and many do -- don't pass on the opportunity to live with a host family. Host families provide intense language immersion and can make living in a foreign country seem like home much more quickly than it may otherwise.
Host families are also seasoned at welcoming students into their homes, and know what struggles and triumphs you may face throughout the course of your program. Many host families also provide a certain number of meals per week, which means you are guaranteed to experience authentic home cooking regularly. All of this can provide you additional support during an extended period of living and studying abroad.
6. Buying Only Familiar Brands of Food When Shopping
Many brands and products you may love in your home country are probably available somewhere in the country you’re studying in, either at a specialty store or even in a regular grocery store.
The ease of familiarity is so tempting, but branching out and trying to shop like a local can create a lasting change in both the food you eat and the way you eat it. Many European shoppers prioritize smaller, more specialized stores, which means you can learn a lot about the food from the vendors you’re shopping from.
7. Frequenting Mega-Chains like Starbucks & McDonalds
Though a venti caramel macchiato may be the best cure for your homesickness, it can also prevent you from going places off the beaten path and discovering somewhere new.
European cities have a rich café culture that changes based on where you are and sticking with what you know could stop you from drinking an espresso quickly at a counter or dipping churros in melted chocolate. And while chains you know may be a great quick lunch or late-night snack, a baguette sandwich or a kebab is so much better.
8. Ignoring Local Manners & Customs
In many European countries, it is considered incredibly rude to begin speaking with someone before saying hello. Some citizens can become very uncomfortable if you hug them instead of handshaking or bising (kissing hello).
Learning these faux pas -- and making sure to avoid them -- can be critical when it comes to fitting in in a foreign country, and can put the locals around you more at ease. A lot of these relational manners and customs can be found for the country you will be living in through a simple search, or you can ask friends or professors for advice.
Most importantly, pay attention when interacting with locals to see how they respond, and always err on the side of caution to respect their customs.
9. Going Home for the Holidays
Maybe this is your first holiday season away from your family, meaning you’ve already thought about or booked your flights home and back. And while it may be tempting to make the trip home, going back to traditions you’re used to wastes an opportunity to learn how others celebrate and what traditions are customary of the city you’re living in.
It can be daunting to stay overseas on your own, but asking friends who live in town if they have an extra seat at the dinner table can be inspiring, and perhaps can introduce new traditions for the next holiday you spend at home. Many people are incredibly hospitable when it comes to welcoming a foreign student into their celebrations, and love being able to share their culture and cuisines to someone beyond their own family.
10. Failing to Balance Classroom Learning & Cultural Immersion
The best study abroad programs integrate classroom lessons with real-life applications for the city you’re in. This ranges from literature to theatre to film, and can help you soak up the city from a cultural and historical standpoint.
While you are studying abroad to learn, don’t let the homework overwhelm you to the point that you don’t actually get the chance to experience the city around you. Just walking the city and interacting with locals can sometimes be the best learning experience there is.
The most important thing to remember as you venture overseas to study abroad is to keep an open mind and stay flexible when things don't go as planned -- and very often, things won't go as planned. Locals will appreciate your effort to adapt to their culture and are often willing to teach you things along the way (let them!). It can definitely be stressful moving to a foreign country by yourself, the experiences you'll gain are well worth it!
This post was originally published in March 2014, and was updated in April 2019.