So you’re about to embark on your term abroad and you don’t really know what to expect. Having made many mistakes preparing for my first time abroad, here are five things you need to know in order to best prepare for the amazing, transformative and unpredictable experience of living in a new country. 🙂
1. When packing, less is more.
The first time I studied abroad, I brought a carry-on backpack and a large suitcase. Traveling around Europe was easy during the school year while I had a permanent home in Córdoba because I would just travel with my backpack. However, having this excess luggage made it a hassle to travel after my program ended. Having to drag my suitcase onto buses, trains, and planes was not only more costly than packing light (baggage fees are expensive!) but more mentally draining, and for nought. I discovered that I didn’t need or use most of the things in my suitcase.
My suggestion: Pack only what you can fit into a carry on backpack. The more space you allow yourself, the more you will pack. Instead of packing huge jackets, pack clothing to layer. If you end up needing something you didn’t pack, your host country is likely to have it. On that same note, pack things you are a 100% sure will not be available in your host country.
2. You will miss your home country’s food.
I typically eat a heavily plant based diet that I maintained while in Spain, which was very difficult because Spanish diets are heavy with meat, eggs and cheese. My diet was rare in Córdoba which meant that things I took for granted back in the States like cheap, readily available tofu and almond milk were hard to find and expensive in Spain. Furthermore, my host mom, although she was a great cook, didn’t really know what to cook for me most of time.
My suggestion: If you have any special dietary needs, heavily research your host country’s diet to best prepare for your time abroad and learn about local recipes that fulfil your needs. Also, bring some comfort food from home for those times that you miss it (like peanut butter or candy).
3. City hopping is tiring (and expensive).
Many students take a few weeks after their program ends to travel around. I myself did a three week solo trip around Spain and Portugal. I would spend about 2 or 3 days in each city, thinking that that was enough time to get to know a place. In some cases that was true, however, nearing the end of my trip, I was physically and mentally drained after city hopping for so long, which meant that my mood for adventure definitely died down towards the end. There came a point when I spent a whole day not doing anything but resting and I felt guilty for “wasting” time instead of exploring my surroundings.
My suggestion: Travel slow. Instead of hoping from city to city every 48 hours, stay in one place 4 days, 5 days, a week, or longer. This gives you ample time to get to know a city better, have a day where you simply relax with guilty free pleasure instead of running around to the city’s attractions, and will save you money on food (you’ll have time to cook) and transportation (since you won’t be buying plane or bus tickets every few days).
4. Pictures are important. But they aren’t everything.
Sometimes I get so caught up in my camera that I forget to look around and truly be present in the moment. I want to take funny pictures to send to friends and family, or take a selfie with the Eiffel Tower or other worldly attraction to update my profile picture. Whatever it may be that distracts you from being present, it’s important to remember to put down the camera and enjoy the moment simply for what it is.
My suggestion: Life is beautiful but a memory is more than a picture in your scrapbook. It’s also about recalling how you felt in that moment, the scents in the air, the people you were surrounded by. Take a moment to breathe and simply observe your surroundings without a screen in your face. This is how you capture the most vivid memories.
5. Returning to your home country is harder than leaving it.
After studying abroad, I went through a long period of depression and longing to be back in my study abroad element. I felt that no one around me truly understood how much I had changed, and my friends and family, understandably, grew tired of my “This one time while in [insert European city]” stories. After learning so much about myself and seeing a new part of the world, I found it hard to relate to my peers and explain my restlessness to be anywhere but Berkeley. I was infected with the travel bug, a permanent affliction that has driven me to finish my last year of college abroad in Brazil rather than at “the #1 public university in the world”.
My suggestion: Research resources for reverse culture shock on your campus, advise students who are going to study abroad so you can talk about your experiences to someone who won’t get tired of it and only wants to know more and seek out new experiences within your local community. If you are anything like me and were bitten by the travel bug, research how you can get back abroad, look for scholarships, and in the meantime, listen to travel podcasts, make friends with other study abroad alumni and travel to places within your home country that you haven’t seen yet. While you can’t completely recreate the same experience of being abroad within your own community, there are certainly things there that you have yet explored and that will fulfil, for the time being, your draw to the different, the international, the worldly.
Bom viajem! 🙂