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How To Make Lifelong Friends During Your Semester/Year Abroad

Friends on a train in China

In most cases, if you have grown up in one place your entire life, you made friends because of where you lived and the schools that you went to. Even in college, your dorm mates were the ones that you roamed around campus with. You braved frat parties, sketchy beer, and even sketchier potential dates. This was how you made friends. You most likely joined a club or two or even became best buddies with someone in your class during those all-nighters at the library. Maybe you went out of your comfort zone and hung out with a couple of people from a different state, maybe even a different country.

This will all change when you go overseas for your semester or year of study abroad. Don't panic though, we've got a handy guide for not just making friends, but for making a lifelong circle of friends. Not to get your hopes up or anything…

Don’t be Afraid of Differences

Here’s the deal: for the first time in your life, you will be surrounded by people who are not like you, living with a foreign roommate, and maybe even immersing yourself in a new, foreign language. The people around you likely won't share your upbringing, background, cultural references, or language. Even if you go with other people from your school, they might be from a completely different clique that you would have never been ordinarily exposed to.

Pretty soon, you will stop caring so much about how you don't fit in and wonder how you ever got along without this new group of friends.

As scary as that sounds, this is perfectly okay -- ideal, even! The whole point of study abroad is being introduced to people and cultures that you have never had the opportunity to experience. Just lose yourself in the euphoria and excitement of your adventure. Try new foods and activities. You might just discover new interests and hobbies that you didn't even know existed!

So, don't be afraid of befriending someone you may not have otherwise been friends with at home, and choose to see your different tastes in music, hobbies, etc. not as a negative, but a chance to learn something new. By embracing differences and getting out of your comfort zone (and, hey, you already proved that by choosing to study abroad!), who knows what kind of people you'll bond with!

Meet Locals

Greg and friends in Thailand

We know it's easy to bond with others on your study abroad trip, but don't discount making friends with locals. Get out there, participate in a language exchange program, frequent the same bars/cafes/restaurants, and have fun with the fact that talking to strangers isn't considered as weird in some places than it is in your home country. Go to at least one dinner where you are the only foreigner and try out the local language/food/humor, and have fun!

It may seem daunting at first to be surrounded by people from a different culture -- your jokes are different, your cultural references are different, your comfort foods are different -- but it's worth it in the end to get over this hump. So, don't let your nerves or your discomfort deter you and never be afraid of looking foolish. Power through the lack of commonality and just give it a try. You will begin to hone your adaptability and pretty soon, you will find yourself giggling through a jumble of languages to tell a single joke that will have everyone in stitches. The ability to laugh at yourself is something you should cultivate and pretty soon, you will stop caring so much about how you don't fit in and wonder how you ever got along without this new group of friends.

Study Abroad with A Program Provider

We're all about making friends with locals, but there's no denying that you'll form a special bond with the other people you study abroad with -- especially if you go with a small or non-traditional program provider like Carpe Diem or Semester at Sea. These program providers will send you and your fellow study abroaders traveling through new territories, meeting new challenges together, and -- naturally -- building lifelong friendships.

In fact, this might even be a big draw for some students to choose these programs over the more traditional direct exchange with another university where you're more or less left to fend for yourself. Not to say that you won't make lifelong friends with your new dormmates during your semester at Oxford, but roughing it in Kenya with a group of new friends will take it to a whole other level

Learn Something New

If you are in a place where you already speak the language, then there is a whole host of other clubs and activities that you can join which will introduce you to new people. Cooking, photography, writing, poetry, and music are all fun options for getting you out into the local community.

Your host school will likely sponsor lots of events and you can also probably find some groups on your own. You might want to also consider going with someone from your program on one of these activities so that you feel more comfortable.

Bond Over A Weekend Getaway

Horseback riding in Turkey

So, you've met some new, cool folks, and things are going pretty well -- why not further the bond by planning a weekend getaway for your new group of friends. If no one else has offered up any ideas, make your own plans and invite others along. Ask local friends for some tips and they might just agree to play tour guide. Share hotel rooms, hostels, and tents, and definitely have at least one adventure via public transportation. Do at least one thing that scares you both or that you have never done before.

I promise you that nothing will be able to take away the memory of sitting between two toilets for eight hours on a miserable train ride with a pair of bosom buddies. It will never get old to reminisce about that time you all got food poisoning and fought through that misery -- together. Years later, you will nostalgically look back at photos of the night you spent camping under the stars in the Sahara, having the adventure of your life. These new friends will have seen you at your best and your worst and they will love you for who you are.

Get Involved With Something You're Passionate About

With all the newness going on, it might feel good to just participate in something you already love and bond with others on this already established, shared interest. So, get involved with a volunteer project or sports group. You can find opportunities through your host school, program provider, or ask others for recommendations for activities that you excel in. It will feel great to meet people who share your interests and passions. Plus you already know at least one thing you have in common and can use this to break the ice!

Cheers to those lifelong friends and may the path to your best friendship not be littered by too many broken bones.

Final Thoughts

Travel has a way of bonding people together -- and traveling by studying abroad is definitely no exception for creating lifelong friendships. After all, there's nothing quite like relying on another human being for your survival and your sanity; someone who will comfort you when your flight gets delayed for the third day in a row; someone who will hold your hair back when that local street food did not sit well; someone who, when you are back home in your “regular” world, you can call up at any time of day and cry about how homesick you are for your home abroad. No matter how many years pass, every reunion will feel like you only just saw each other the day before. Cheers to those lifelong friends and may the path to your best friendship not be littered by too many broken bones.

Photo Credits: Author and Greg Walters.

Cecilia Haynes

Cecilia is a Third Culture Kid who is currently based in Florida. She hopped on her first plane when she was three months old and has yet to stop flying. She has lived in China, India, the U.S., the Philippines, and Turkey. After saving money by working as an English instructor in Hong Kong for a year, she backpacked around the Tibetan Plateau, western China, and northern India.