Studying abroad is one of the most eye-opening, mind-bending, life-changing, experiences a student can have.
Yet, when beginning the process of studying abroad -- from researching programs to booking airfare -- it can be difficult to know what studying abroad actually is like. Those shining happy faces staring up from the glossy catalogs in your study abroad offices don’t tell the whole picture after all. Nor do your fellow classmates Instagram snaps of sunny days in front of the Eiffel Tower or standing on the crystal blue shores of a beach in Thailand.
I found out personally just how different the reality of studying abroad is from my preconceived notions while studying for a semester as an exchange student in Melbourne, Australia. My actual experience of studying abroad was far different from my dorm-fueled daydreams, but not always in negative ways.
That being said, as a study abroad vet, there are a few things I wish I knew before studying abroad. Here’s my top ten.
1. You Actually Have to Study
Riding bikes through the streets of Amsterdam. Feeding elephants in Southeast Asia. Learning to surf in Australia. It’s funny how the study portion of study abroad is the first to be left out of afternoon daydream sessions.
While it’s true some programs may be easier than classes at your home university, the primary purpose of studying abroad is to take classes at a foreign institution.
Just because you are in a different and exciting location doesn’t mean you won’t still have to spend hours cramming for tests, writing papers and completing group projects. Studying abroad isn’t a semester-long vacation. You’re still going to have to work.
2. A Semester Is (Usually) Not Enough Time to Become Fluent in a Second Language
Learning a new language is hard. If you are just beginning to study a new language, a semester probably won’t be enough time to become fluent. Just being in a country with a native language other than English is also not a guarantee that you will learn it.
If you're serious about wanting to improve your language skills you will need to put in a lot of time studying, practicing and making mistakes just as you would in a classroom. A unique location may make it easier for you to find opportunities to practice, but you will still need to put in the work.
3. American Culture Is Everywhere
Sorry, but going overseas probably won’t free you from hearing that “just shut up and dance” song every several minutes. The fact is American culture permeates nearly all corners of the globe and leaving the country will not be a total escape.
I’ve been asked about the escuela de los hippies (translation: UC Berkeley) on a remote mountain trek in Costa Rica, “House of Cards” is my friend group from Australia’s favorite television series, and Madrid seems to have an uncanny obsession with Ke$ha these days.
Entertainment from the United States is more popular than ever, so chances are, even if you are in a different country, the people you meet will probably still have some of these same shared media related interests.
4. Culture Shock Is a Real Thing (and It'll Be Roller Coaster)
Despite the popularity of United States culture around the world, culture shock is a real thing. Even if you are in a country that has a very similar culture to the United States or where the native language is English, most study abroad students will still have moments of culture shock.
The moments may be big or they may be small, they may last a few hours or a week, but they will still be there. Just remember, these moments are completely natural and everyone experiences them. The difficult moments will help you appreciate the really good ones and will help mold you into a stronger person.
5. People Will Have Stereotypes About You
Italians eat pasta all day. In France, days pass drinking wine. Just as you will be bringing stereotypes (which may or may not be true) to your study abroad destination, the people you meet overseas will have stereotypes (which may or may not be true) about you.
I’ve encountered stereotypes about me ranging from “All Californians live on the ocean” to “All Americans own guns.” Some stereotypes may be silly, some may be hurtful. Try not to let them offend you but instead use them as a conversation starter to share your own culture with others.
6. Dating in a Foreign Country Can Be Overrated
From scenes of midnight rides on Vespas to walking along the beach in Rio de Janeiro, dating in a foreign country can be an intoxicating fantasy. But in reality, people are people and just because your location may feel more romantic to you is no guarantee that you will actually find romance.
No, it’s not wrong to date abroad, but you may want to think carefully about how you are spending your precious time overseas. Don’t invest all your energy and free time in dating. Spending your time traveling, making lasting friendships or having cultural experiences may be more meaningful to you in the long run than going on a handful of dead-end Tinder dates.
7. There's No Way to Fully Prepare
I spent my last two months in Melbourne wearing borrowed sweaters because I had no idea how cold it actually gets in the city come winter time. Sure, it would have been easy to beat myself up for not having researched the city properly, but the truth is there is actually no way to fully prepare for a study abroad experience.
No matter how much time you spend researching, there will always be some details you leave out or can’t anticipate. Enjoy the surprises as they come and find a way to persevere through trying circumstances.
8. Having Fewer Expectations Will Lead to a Richer Experience
While researching your destination ahead of time can help you feel more prepared, I’ve found that having fewer expectations before studying abroad can lead to a richer experience.
Stonehenge may not be as magnificent in person as you imagined it would be and that’s ok. It may not be as easy to spot monkeys in Costa Rica as you anticipated and that’s ok. You may not like the food in China as much as you thought you would and that’s ok too.
You can’t plan memories before they happen. Take the experience as it comes and appreciate your foreign local for what it truly is versus what you would like it to be.
9. The Best Memories Are Unexpected
Before I studied abroad I was sure that holding a koala was going to be the highlight of my semester in Australia. But as my time down under passed I found that my best memories were actually unexpected moments I spent with friends I made, moments there is no way I could have predicted before I began my experience.
Watch for these moments and enjoy them as they come! Take lots of photos, keep a journal, start a blog or send lots of postcards to help you remember these times in the future.
10. Your Experience Is Up to You
At the end of the day, how your experience of studying abroad turns out is up to no one but you. You alone control your destiny abroad. Studying abroad is your time and no one else’s, so it is up to you to decide what will make the experience most meaningful to you, step outside your comfort zone and live your adventure to its fullest potential!