Before You Decide
Go to study abroad meetings and events at your school. Study abroad programs can vary between colleges. Some schools are very hands on and do everything for you while others may have you figure somethings out yourself. That’s why it’s important to talk to your school to figure out if it’s worth it. Maybe you’ll want to wait until you transfer into a different university that offers a better program. My school used American Institute for Foreign Study and they were incredible. They handled flights, first night hotel accommodations, transportation to/from the airport, apartments, weekly cultural activities, tours, excursions, free wifi, 24-hour staff in close proximity & at school, Culture & Language course (taught by people living in the city), medical insurance, and a museum pass to get unlimited entry into all the major museums for a year. There was probably more but it’s still incredible AIFS did all that. I met some other students while abroad who said their school didn’t offer them any cultural activities, tours, passes, meal plan, or language course. Finding out what your school offers, and at what price, is important when deciding whether you want to go. You can also get all your questions answered. I know I had A LOT questions when I was trying to decide if I should study abroad.
Research what study abroad programs your school offers. Choosing which country/city you will go to is the most important decision. When I first decided to study abroad, my dream was to study in London. However, the timing for my schools London program wouldn’t work for me. I ended up going to Florence only because it fit in my schedule. Florence wasn’t even on my radar before that. As luck would have it, Florence ended up being an AMAZING place to study abroad. In my personal opinion, the best cities to study abroad in are small with a lot to do. They are cheaper, easier to walk around (no scary public transportation), and allow you to connect to the true culture of the location. A city like Rome or Paris is wonderful but too large, expensive, and touristy for me to live in for 3 months.
Talk to an advisor/counselor. You will need to find out which classes you should be taking while abroad. You don’t want to end up paying thousands for classes that you don’t need to graduate. They will help you figure out which semester is best for you, what classes to take, and which programs are available for you. You’ll also be able to find out if you’re even eligible to study abroad! Schools have different rules and may tell you you’re not allowed to go until you pay an outstanding fee or take more units.
Don’t wait until it’s too late. A lot of people put studying abroad aside because they want to finish certain classes first, transfer to a larger school, or wait until they leave a job. I did study abroad when I was in community college and it was the best decision I ever made. It was WAY cheaper ($7,695 +$545 for the meal plan to be exact), I loved the program my school used (AIFS), and I took easier GE classes while abroad. The longer you wait, the less options you have because the few classes you need to graduate might not be offered aboard. The classes also get more difficult and time-consuming as you progress through each semester.
Find out what scholarships and financial aid your school provides for studying abroad. Fun fact: They will usually offer you MORE money. Probably because it’s more expensive but still. I got a grant of $10,000 from my school to pay for my program fees plus books! That saved me more than half of what I would have had to pay for the whole thing.
Before You Go
Attend all the meetings your school holds for the program you chose. Not only will you be able to ask questions but you’ll also get to meet the people you will be abroad with for months. Moving to a new country is scary enough. You don’t want to get there and have nothing be familiar to you. Meeting and talking to fellow students will help you ease into everything. It also allows you to start building these friendships early so you can get to the new country and explore together. Solo traveling can be fun, but it’s not for everyone.
Save money. Think about how much money you spend at home. Double that. Maybe even triple that. That’s how much you’ll spend living abroad. You’ll be eating out more, paying entrance fees to all kinds of places, plus traveling outside the city you are studying in. Heck! I even had to pay to enter the toilets in some places!
Figure out what banks and cards you can use abroad. It’s a good idea to go to your bank or call them to ask if they charge a fee to use your card abroad and if they charge you for withdrawal. You may need to open a new credit card that is free to use abroad and a debit card that doesn’t charge you fees for taking out cash in that country. You will need to withdraw cash every so often so you aren’t carrying too much money around when abroad. The best way to do this is by using an abroad partner/sister bank that won’t charge you for taking out cash. Exchanging currency abroad is a waste of money. Get some of their currency from your bank before you leave and at an ATM while aboard. Also, check the exchange rates every so often so you can get a good rate before you leave and while using ATMs aboard.
Make sure you have all your textbooks and some necessary school supplies. I made sure to order and purchase my books right away in case my roommates had completely different classes from me (& most of them did). I also brought a few pens & pencils. Things like note books and binder paper I bought at the €1 store in Florence. If you can buy digital copies, try to do that because textbooks add a lot of weight to your luggage. I had to pay $150 each way (& SHIP A BOX BACK!!) because my checked bags were overweight. 😦
Start packing early and pack as light as possible. Packing your luggage for a lengthy abroad trip is gruesome. Start AT LEAST 4-5 days before you leave. You will need to make sure you can carry your suitcases before you leave so you can take stuff out if it’s too heavy. If you can’t carry it up and down one flight of stairs, it’s too heavy. It’s your responsibility to carrying your luggage (all of it) the day you arrive and the day you leave. Be warned, not all airports & apartment buildings have elevators and escalators. I found this out the hard way when my apartment was on the 4th floor and I had to carrying my 70 pound suitcase up tiny cement stairs in Florence. A city like Venice will have a lot of stairs and bridges with virtually no cars. So, leave anything you MIGHT use at home. Trust me. Bring only necessities. You’ll be surprised how little you actually need. I only brought 27 outfits with me and even that was too much. You can check out my blog post on packing light if you need additional help.
While Studying Abroad
Immerse yourself in the culture as much as you can. Studying abroad feels a bit like you’re living a new life if you’re doing it right. This can be really hard for some people because they miss home and everyone they are used to. It’s normal to be homesick and call your friends and family every once in a while. Just don’t do it everyday since it will only make it more difficult to adapt to this new life. When you’re not studying for classes, get out to explore new cultures and a different way of life.
Take lots of pictures but don’t worry about posting them right away. Spend your time enjoying yourself and living in the moment. You can post all you pictures on social media when you come home. Right now you need to be having fun and, don’t forget, STUDYING.
Stay safe. -Always be on alert when traveling because many of the places you will visit have high crime. It may not seem like it at the time, but crowded places are just as dangerous as a dark empty alley. -Try to blend into the local culture. As a foreign student, you have a large target on your back. Avoid advertising that you are student from another country (e.g. no college logos). -Don’t tell a strange that you & all your friends are students and living as 120 Please Rob Me Lane. -Don’t drink excessive amounts of alcohol or use drugs which are illegal in that country. -Don’t debate politics or get in fights. -Don’t participate in public demonstrations. -Find out all the emergency contact numbers. Keep them on your phone and printed out in the apartment. -Look at the website www.state.gov/travel for up-to-date travel information.
Spend your weekdays focusing on school and your weekends going on excursions. Staying in the same city, or even country, the entire time is as waste of a great opportunity. Flying to different countries in Europe is much cheaper than flying from the US to Europe. And flying to different States is much cheaper than flying from Asia to the US. You get the point. Take advantage of these new countries/cities that are in close proximity.
Get all your trips and adventures done early. Don’t do what I did and spend the last two weeks rushing from place to place like a madman when you should be studying for your finals. The start of the semester is always the easiest and this is still true when you’re abroad. In addition, crowds increase as you move towards summer and winter breaks. Sep-Nov and Feb-March are the best times to go on trips if you want to avoid long lines and crowds.
Make a Facebook group for your specific program. Your school might already have one, but if they don’t, make one and invite all the people in your classes. A group makes it easier to get advice, make friends, and plan trips. My program had one called “Florence Study Abroad 2014.” We used it for all kinds of things. Some people would even post in the group asking if anyone wants to grab dinner with them. Friendship grew much quicker for those who participated in the group and were open to invitations to hang out.
Be a good roommate. A bad roommate can really put a damper on your experience. So be as kind, considerate, and as accepting as you can. All my roommates were nothing like me but I learned to adapt and play nice. Others can be unnecessarily rude or inconsiderate which does nothing but bring the mood down and make everyone else uncomfortable. If you don’t click with any of them, make friends with other classmates. You don’t have to spend all your time with your roommates. But you should be nice to them.
Before You Come Home
Slowly start packing for your trip home a few weeks before. I made the huge mistake of waiting until the last day to finish packing. I ended up getting no sleep that night & I was still packing when the taxi pulled up at 8am! The best thing to do is pack away anything you notice you aren’t using and won’t need for the rest of the trip. By the last week, your suitcase should be half-full of things like clothes and souvenirs.
Visit all the places you haven’t had an opportunity to go to. Hopefully you went to all the important places at the start of your program and now you can go around checking off the rest.
Throw a farewell party/feast/potluck with your roommates and friends a few days before you leave. This is not only a good opportunity to talk about your wonderful experience but also use up all the food in your apartment! My roommates and I ended up throwing away FIVE large trash bags before we left and some of it was food. But if your program isn’t strict about having the apartment empty, consider leaving things like salt, sugar, unopened flour, etc. for the next group of students.
After Studying Abroad
Finally being home will be a strange experience. It will feel like your time living in another country never happened and you dreamt the whole thing. However, you will always have the memories and hopefully hold them close for the rest of your life. And if you ever feel the memories slipping, look through your (millions of) photos or ask one of your abroad friends if they would like to catch up. Not all the friendships you make abroad will last forever, but hopefully the few important ones do.