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Get Over It: Things You Need to Come to Terms With Before You Study Abroad

Study Abroad FrancePhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

So you’ve chosen your program, planned your courses and you’re all ready to study abroad. All you need is a few pairs of jeans, a good camera and a strong liver, right? Not quite. Though at first glimpse, studying abroad may just seem like an excuse for a five-month vacation, it’s not all rainbow and kittens all the time. When people talk about the challenges of living abroad, they don’t just mean the annoyance of planning Skype sessions around the time difference. Studying abroad is, for many students, one of the biggest highlights of college, but it’s not something you should waltz into completely unprepared.

In order to help you board your plane with a realistic set of expectations that will help you adjust more easily to your new situation, here are a few harsh but real truths that you might as well start working on accepting right now. Read on for some of the most important study abroad tips that your advisor forget to tell you:

Yes, You Actually Have to Study

When some people see the phrase “study abroad,” their eyes glaze over and skip straight to the second word. While the whole point of study abroad is, yes, to be abroad, the first word is involved for a reason: because sometimes, you do have to study. And go to class. And turn in papers, and do everything else expected of college students. Depending on your home school, major and study abroad program, you may find that your classes are easier than you’re used to, or perhaps that the language difference makes them much more challenging.

You might be surprised to find that your grade is based on two research papers written in the course of four months, or disappointed to discover that your professor is not available to answer last-minute questions emailed at 4 in the morning. You will have to adapt to a different educational system and possibly even a different learning style. While you should try to spend as much time as possible traveling and immersing yourself in the culture of your study abroad country or city, try not to leave all your study habits at home.

School in FrancePhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

You Will Probably Be Confused At Least 80% of the Time

Classrooms change. Reading materials can only be picked up between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. at one specific copy shop three blocks away. Class is canceled and nobody tells you – or tells you why. Your final paper prompt makes no sense to you. And that’s just school issues – let’s not even get into your disastrous attempts to read maps.

No matter how many guidebooks and prep materials you read, or how many movies you watch, there are just going to be practices and situations that will take you by surprise.

It might be the guy playing guitar on the bus, or the fact that your town has only one taxi – and it’s a motorcycle. “Expect the unexpected” is a dumb cliché, but you do have to brace yourself for the possibility that tasks as simple as buying something at the grocery store will take on all sorts of levels of challenge. Once you get used to it, though, it’ll become like second nature (or you’ll at least learn to ignore the guy on the bus).

Your Go-To Snacks May Abandon You

You never know how much you take your familiar grocery store for granted until it’s gone. Most of us are spoiled by having 5 billion options and flavors for every single item on the market, but even putting aside the variety, we get attached to certain things. Maybe it’s Ramen, or grapefruit juice, or Apple Jacks or those Doritos that turn your fingers weird colors. You might be able to find close approximations in some places, but you have to prepare yourself for the possibility that your favorite late-night snacks may just not exist wherever you’re heading. This tends to be hardest when it comes to two staples of the college diet: peanut butter and breakfast cereal. For some reason, other countries do not elevate these foods to the sacred status that we and our friends do, and you might have to start getting creative about dealing with their absence (or pack three jars of Trader Joe’s cookie butter in your suitcase. I have certainly never done this, no way).

On the other hand, you’ve just entered a whole new snack universe, filled with treats you never knew existed. It’s a brave new world out there, and it’s yours (and your taste buds’) to explore. By the time you head home, you might miss your study abroad snacks even more!

This tends to be hardest when it comes to two staples of the college diet: peanut butter and breakfast cereal. For some reason, other countries do not elevate these foods to the sacred status that we and our friends do.

Things Don’t Work the Way You Expect Them To

Many of us are spoiled by our culture of instant gratification, where we, like Veruca Salt, want something and we want it NOW. While this may work in our world of smartphones and self-checkout, it isn’t true everywhere else. Things work, sure (mostly), but they don’t function in the way you’re used to, and that’s going to take some adaptation.

Your cell phone may run on minutes bought off a prepaid card at a corner store, rather than a monthly plan. ATMs may require more steps than breaking into Fort Knox, or make you change your password every two weeks. Taxis may be meter-less and require constant negotiation, and you might not be expected to tip waiters. Wifi may be a luxury rather than a public service. People might charge you to use a bathroom – and you’ll be glad they did, because the price includes the only toilet paper in the room.

Any good study abroad program will remind you that your sense of “normal” will be challenged while you’re abroad, so you might as well start forgetting about normalcy right now.

Your Mom is Not Here to Take Care of You

Eating in FrancePhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

If you’re one of those kids who mysteriously managed to make it to whatever age you are without learning how to wash your own clothes or cook dinner for yourself, you may be in for a rough few weeks. You'll need to take responsibility for yourself and function independently more than ever before. You’re probably not going to have a dining hall like the one in your dorm, and even if your homestay family feeds you, it’s going to be different from what you’re used to.

The same goes for chores like doing laundry, making your bed and getting your shoes fixed when they fall apart because you walk everywhere. Sure, you can find a place to wash your clothes, sleep under one blanket and just deal with the holes if you’re really stubborn about it, but at some point you’re probably going to have to take responsibility for doing something you’ve never had to do before. Isn’t maturity fun? #grownups

Your Fave Holidays Are Canceled This Year

Halloween? Not happening. Memorial Day? What’s that? Thanksgiving? Forget about it. Some holidays are more universal than others, but depending on where you are, you may not even have Easter or New Year’s to fall back on. Part of the excitement of being immersed in another culture is learning about and experiencing their unique holidays, whether it’s Semana Santa, Ramadan, Holi or Chinese New Year. These holidays may be somewhat familiar or completely new to you, and there’s no doubt they’ll be interesting. Still, it’s hard not to feel a little sad when that last week of November rolls around and there’s no cranberry sauce on the table.

One way to deal with this is to plan your own celebration with other students from the same country or same religion as you – this is fairly common and can be a good way to feel connected to your own community and culture. Just don’t get so wrapped up in missing your own holidays that you forget to enjoy the new ones you’re learning about. On the bright side, most other countries have more public holidays than the U.S., so at least you’re getting more vacation days!

Still, it’s hard not to feel a little sad when that last week of November rolls around and there’s no cranberry sauce on the table.

You Can’t Use the Internet for Everything

Hell, there might be times you won’t even be able to use the internet at all, depending on where you are. But even if you do regularly have a dependable connection, you won’t necessarily have access to all the services you’re used to. Your credit cards may not be accepted in your study abroad country, and there might not be many stores that accept online payment. Searching for housing, furniture or bikes might require more effort than it does in your hometown, as Craigslist has yet to catch on in many other parts of the world in the same way it has in the U.S. Still, you know that people manage to get all of these things done there, so it just means you’ll have to do a little more homework to figure out how they’re doing it. You might even have to interact with some other humans instead of just tapping your keyboard.

Eating in JapanPhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

You’re Probably Going to Offend Someone

Oh, language and culture barriers. So difficult, such endless sources of entertainment – and potential pitfalls. If you’re planning on learning a new language in your study abroad country, you have to be prepared to make constant mistakes and feel like an idiot half the time – saying “potatoes” instead of “parents,” or mixing up the verbs “to bring” and “to kiss.” Most blunders are harmless, and people understand that you’re bound to mix up your words when you’re not a native speaker, but it might not be a bad idea to find out how to avoid saying anything terrible. Find a trusted friend and interrogate him or her on the worst words that exist there, so you know to avoid them like the plague.

Unfortunately, the problem isn’t just verbal – cultural norms vary widely, in terms of everything from how to correctly greet people to where and when it is appropriate to remove your shoes. Again, you’re bound to make some mistakes at first, and hopefully people will be understanding, but just try to follow the lead of others, and you should figure things out fairly quickly. You may have to resign yourself to the reality that people won’t initially see what a polite and intelligent person you are, but it’s supposed to be a learning experience, after all!

Though at first glimpse, studying abroad may just seem like an excuse for a five-month vacation, it’s not all rainbow and kittens all the time.

Studying abroad can be one of the best experience of your time in high school or college, but, just like your first day of school, try not to arrive with too many expectations about the experience, or with the idea that it’ll be just like your life at home, but in a different language. Choose a study abroad program that will set you up for success in your new country, like CET Study Abroad or SFS. Once you survive your first few days of study abroad, you'll be good as gold!

Natalie Southwick
Natalie has made appearances in 16 different countries to date. Her favorite is definitely Colombia, where she spent 3.5 years ogling mountains on a d Read More...