You just spent the best months of your life living independently, learning about new cultures and exploring an entirely foreign continent, and now you find yourself packing your bags for the last time to head across the pond back home. While the holidays and seeing family are things to look forward to, you can't help but feel a twinge of sadness to leave behind the memories, adventures and new found friendships that have made such a significant impact on your life.
Whether its the man at the local butcher who gives you an extra slice of salami when you chat about his day, the waitress at the local cafe who brings you a fresh croissant with your Americano each morning, the flatmate who goes to college back in the States across the country from you, or the teacher that opened your eyes to the incredible architecture on every street corner, the people who have touched your semester abroad are endless. Fortunately, today isn't the end, it's just the beginning for where these experiences, memories and relationships will take you.
Know Who to Keep in Touch With
While it is exciting to think about all of the relationships you cultivated during your semester abroad, hone in on the folks that are most important to you for your keeping-in-touch-efforts. The people you met will likely fall into a couple general categories:
- Acquaintances: These are the lovely people you crossed paths with on the reg, perfect for chit chat and improving your small talk skills (who knew you could describe the weather in so many ways?!). You might have to come to terms that you've said a true "good bye" to them (until you make your return trip, that is!).
- Cool friends in your program: You likely interacted with a bunch of awesome students while on your program abroad. But just as you got closer with a smaller crew than the entire group, you'll want to focus less on maintaining a strong relationship with your casual friends.
- Your posse: Did you meet your brother-from-another-mother or sister-from-another-mister or whatever soul mate silly jargon phrase while studying abroad? We are thrilled you had a bestie to share in on the fun (who else would've taken all those awesome photos of you by the Eiffel Tower?!). You'll want to prioritize staying friends with these peeps.
- Your homestay families: They're some of the most lovely people you've ever met and even though you're really sad you have to say good bye to Nonna's (Grandma's) alfredo, they're now you're adopted family. You should definitely make the effort to keep this tie strong!
- Your program advisors/directors: These folks looked after your every move for the last few months to make sure it was enjoyable and safe. They really care about you and your wellbeing, and will make great local contacts when you plan to come back someday (maybe even more permanently). The occasional small gesture - letter, email, etc - will do well to keep this relationship in tact.
From weekend travel buddies to homestay sisters to your favorite barista, each relationship added value to your experience abroad, and made it all the more sweeter. Why would you want to walk from these great people without making even the smallest attempts at keeping in touch?! If anything, you'll ultimately benefit from sustaining these relationships as you navigate reverse culture shock upon your return home.
Keep doing what you're probably already doing
As you head back to your university and school friends, it's overwhelming to share the details of your adventures with those who weren't with you. This is the first time you'll appreciate keeping in touch with everyone from your semester abroad. Email, Facebook, social media and texting about your favorite memories will help you adjust to a more normal routine again. Sentiments of: “Ugh, I wish I was headed to Cafe Fritz instead of my school cafeteria for breakfast this morning!” “Remember when our days consisted of endless exploring and NO midterms?!” “I’d give anything to go back to Barcelona for just one more night” will be easily shared with your friends from abroad.
FaceTime and Skyping your abroad friends from your college dorm room is an incredible way to brighten your day and take a trip down memory lane. With how interconnected we are today, you have the opportunity to feel like your friends are still sitting next to you, even when you are miles or states apart.
These interactions become especially useful as your friends from your hometown/university town tire of hearing about “That time in (insert awesome exotic locale) when…”. Don’t worry, your stories are still worth sharing (just make sure you have the right audience!). If all else fails or you want more bang-for-your-chat-buck, you can always utilize a Group Chat Messenger to keep in touch (we like WhatsApp and GroupMe). Even texting a selfie in your beloved futbal scarf or posting the occasional #TBT tag will make your abroad friends feel less far away.
Plan your next joint adventure
Plan a college visit to see your friends studying elsewhere in the US! No, you don’t need your passport for this trip, but after navigating the trains, planes and automobiles across a foreign land, checking in and out of customs and planning sightseeing itineraries, this will be a piece of (delicious) cake!
Choose a weekend where something unique is going on at their school – football game, festival, concert or birthday celebration. Plan ahead to get a great deal on your transportation and pack a weekend bag to experience someone else’s college experience. While it might not seem as exotic, sometimes college campuses can differ just as much as countries can (especially if you attend a smaller, private university and you head out to a large state school or vice versa!). You might be surprised how much fun you have, and it’s always great to see an old friend’s face. Added bonus, you get to meet their friends from home and share your tales from abroad together.
Rally the whole crew if you want to plan a truly epic weekend reliving the glory days abroad. Afterall, the road to a friend’s is never long.
Stock up on stamps
Keeping in touch with locals back in your study abroad destination may be your biggest challenge, especially if you’re missing a host mom or dad that treated you like one of the family while you were there. While many students won’t have the time or money to return to their study abroad country anytime soon, there are options that are the next best thing.
Setting up Skype and making dates to catch up on what’s going on is instant gratification, but our favorite way to keep in touch is using the good old fashioned post office. Sending a birthday card, package with your favorite treats from home or pictures of a great memory when you were studying abroad are always an incredible surprise. Who doesn’t love opening mail!?!
Writing letters and being modern-day pen pals can help you brush up on your second language and give you something to look forward to receiving. Nothing beats the feeling of ripping open package wrappings!
Make a return trip!
Once students head abroad, most catch the travel bug, and badly! Dreams of returning back to your study abroad hometown or continuing your travels in new cities are not uncommon. Some students even look for jobs overseas post-study abroad, teaching English being one of the most popular vocations. One of the advantages of making great local contacts when you study abroad is that most likely, you’ll always have a place to crash when you return, and for free!
If (and when) you do begin planning for a second tour, make sure to prioritize visiting everyone who made an impression on you - bonus if you bring friends along. Starting an email chain with your study abroad friends about your wanderlusts is a fun way to not only stay in touch, but also get people’s wheels turning about how to make it happen. Trips after graduation are a great gift to ask for from family before you begin a job in the real world (check out FundMyTravel to source monetary gifts from friends and family). You might find yourself even staying a bit longer than expected… ;)
Final thoughts and tips
The best advice I have ever heard about keeping in touch with friends from old chapters of your life is this: don't rely on memories, has-been's, or past experiences for building your longterm friendship. You need to connect your life abroad with your current life: introduce your international friends to your friends at school and tell them honestly about what's going on in your day-to-day life (in real time, if you're addicted to your smart phone). When they ask you how you've been, give detailed answers instead of the generic "good" or "great."
Keeping in touch does take effort; however, if you channel your energy and focus on the relationships that really matter to you, you are less likely to get burnt out on maintaining connections. As time passes, it may come that these friendships get a little dusty - but fear not. The ties of your adventures abroad are stronger than you can even fathom right now!
The moral of the story: returning home from study abroad won’t be the end of your adventures or relationships. The opportunities for continuing to learn about other cultures and grow even closer to those you met are endless, but you have to want to make it work. The easy way out would be returning to your regular routine and getting swept up in the rah rah of college, but where’s the fun in that?! Relationships from abroad can be some of the most rewarding and lifelong friends you will ever have, so go the extra mile to make the most of the future memories you can have together.