I stepped out into the alley of my new Italian home and walked into the piazza that sat right below our windows. I had woken up to music in the morning, and my roommate and I looked out to see a mini market had magically sprung up in the spot where pigeons usually reigned supreme.
“Let’s go!” I practically yelled into her ear. She looked at me and flopped back in bed, moaning about class soon and pajama pants. I couldn’t wait -- I had just gotten to Italy, and I wanted to explore. So I got dressed and headed down.
The first vendor was a little man in a beanie selling boxes and boxes of shoes out of his van. They were meticulously displayed, as if in a storefront. His little dog danced around his feet. I stopped on the corner to take in the market and he came over to me.
I chose a town where I was one of twelve Americans in it, and I got the cultural immersion experience that I really wanted.
“Ciao!” The fact he was talking to me was surprising. The minimal Italian I knew left my head immediately. He asked where I was from and I desperately explained my student status. He was patient with me and very friendly.
Soon enough, he became a good friend. I would chat with him every morning on my way to school. He’d wink as he gave me free confetti to throw from our windows during Carnevale, and at the end of the semester, he gave me a CD of the music he’d used to play every morning, so I could “wake up as if I was still in Ascoli.”
This was my definition of “getting something” out of my study abroad. Simple, everyday friendships and life. Making the most of your study abroad can be defined completely different based on your goals, even before you go overseas. But here are my ways I made the most of it, and I’m so glad I did.
I Chose a Program That Was Exactly What I Wanted
Why do you want to study abroad? You may think you know the answer to this question, but really dig deep before you solidify that answer. When I realized why I wanted to study abroad, I was in Italy on a family trip -- not to the traditional “touristy” parts of Italy, but Sicily. I saw Italian towns untouched by tourism; no souvenir shops, no international menus, just Italy.
So when I was researching colleges and study abroad programs, I knew I didn’t want tourist flags waving down the streets. I chose a town where I was one of twelve Americans in it, and I got the cultural immersion experience that I really wanted.
I Decided to Go Alone
This decision starts way before you get on that plane. When you think about going overseas, you’re going to talk about it -- and so is everyone else in your college. But that doesn’t mean that studying abroad with your best friends/significant other/acquaintances is the best idea.
When you study abroad, many people say they want to “find themselves”. Our freedom from parental units is recent, we still don’t really know how the real world works, and we’re going on new adventures to figure all this stuff out before it’s “too late." (Just for the record: there is no such thing as being too late to go overseas.)
When you strap another person to your side on your journey, your goals will undoubtedly clash at some point, and you may not have as much time to dedicate on "finding yourself" if you're in your comfort zone from the get go. Decisions are harder, relationships sometimes get strapped, and a friendship can be made or broken when traveling.
If you study abroad alone, you’ll still have friendships and adventures -- just with new roommates you meet abroad, in hostels, and even just at events you’ll happen across. Sure, sometimes it gets a bit lonely when abroad, but we think that may just be part of this growing up process anyway.
I Took My Classes Seriously
I know that a lot of people get into the mindset that studying abroad really isn’t academically serious. The classes are usually pass-fail, so who cares about grades, right? Perhaps for some majors, studying abroad will be easier, or maybe you saved up those general ed classes for a reason. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn't take advantage of the endless opportunities your courses will give you.
When else will you have the chance to learn about Roman architecture, then go out and see it in real life? Getting to write a paper on Shakespeare while sitting where Shakespeare sat? Bucket list!
These classes are experiences you can live and breathe. No books, no far-away places. This is stuff that created the world we are in today, and you have a very, very incredible opportunity to learn things by doing. So study. Do the things. You’ll thank me.
Tip: take your language classes especially seriously! I know languages are difficult, and I know you feel like an idiot when you have to ask your classmate what their favorite food or sport is for the thousandth time. But when you can suddenly watch that German movie without the subtitles, you'll realize that all your hard work will be worth it.
I Didn't Travel Every Weekend
Because of the location that I chose for my semester abroad, I had a more difficult time traveling because it took a three-hour bus ride to get to the closest city with an airport (Rome).
This is what I wanted because I personally wanted to focus more of my time living in Italy than traveling Europe. However, like anyone going overseas, that travel bug calls to you -- and when flights can be as cheap as 10 Euro, you’re going to travel.
Just keep in mind that traveling every weekend may actually hurt you more than help you. You won't have as much time to dedicate to getting to know your host city.
I Made Local Friends
I've graduated and now live in Florence and I still run into a lot of students on my daily jaunts around town. The worst thing I can hear is that they have not made any Italian friends. Sometimes these students have been in this city for a year, and many have never even had a full conversation with a Florentine other than their professors.
Going back to my original reason why I wanted to study abroad (for the culture and immersion), I wanted to be able to speak and learn from the people that live in Italy -- not just from my teachers. I wanted Italian friends, a boyfriend even, and when you do succeed, it’ll take your study abroad experience to a different level.
Of course, it's much easier to meet locals in smaller towns where you’re the sore thumb of the bunch with your "American ways", but even in big cities, you can still find ways to connect with locals and even students your age.
Volunteering in local community organizations, befriending your local grocers or shopkeepers, finding a conversation partner, and literally sitting on a bench in a park has sometimes led to incredible conversations for me during my time abroad. Try it. It can happen.
I Didn’t Spend All My Time on My Phone
I have pictures of my time abroad, sure. But, although I can’t believe I’m saying this, I’m old enough that smartphones didn’t exist when I was abroad. WiFi was not installed in my apartment. I have albums of photos, but I don’t have a timeline of every day I was abroad. And that's fine -- I think I even like the memories more in my head anyway.
So you’re going to Greece for the weekend. So you’re going to ride a camel through the deserts of Morocco. So you’re sitting in your gorgeous window in your apartment in Ireland.
Stop right there. DON’T take out your phone. Yes, of course, these are incredible experiences and yes, okay, one picture on the camel is fine, but keep it to the absolute minimum.
Stop spending your study abroad looking at the world from the other end of a selfie stick. Your experiences are supposed to be experienced in the moment -- and it’s even been proven that taking too many pictures will morph your memory of them!
Stop looking for the nearest WiFi access point and just enjoy the streets of Venice. Get lost in Salzburg instead of gluing your eyes to Google Maps, looking for that restaurant you found on TripAdvisor. Updating your snap story or Instagram can wait. It's important to live your life abroad if you want to make the most of it.BMcIvr and Pavan Trikutam