I am an engineering major. Well, I am a Computer Science major to be precise. Over the last seven years, from middle school and well past high school, I have studied the French language. Since I was small I have known that I have wanted to study abroad in France, however, mixing Computer Science and French is no simple task. In fact, it was less of a task and more a major strain of luck and a series of chances and a it-doesn’t-hurt-to-try mentality. Do not be fooled, however, to my skills with the French language. I am not fluent despite years of practice and my first month in Tours, France as an exchange student has been an interesting one (to say the least). However, when life gets “interesting,” I turn to a personal set of maxims that I always keep on the top of my head. Some are quotes from illustrious authors, some are song lyrics, and some are common sense. But the piece of wisdom that I have held closest to me during the meagre three weeks that I have been in Tours has been: “Try everything once; if you don’t like it, you never have to do it again.”
Now do not misconstrue this as thinly veiled pessimism because it is not. By trying everything once, you learn your threshold for various activities, but the first, essential step before you can mentally place yourself in this situation is to release every preconception and expectation you had upon deciding to study abroad. Very rarely will even simple things go as expected. Things will be difficult and different when you study abroad. For example, in France, you must always have an appointment to get a bank account. I also severely underestimated the power of bureaucracy, although I was copiously warned about France and the abundance of bureaucratic roadblocks.
Furthermore, you may discover which nasty coping mechanisms to which you turn when you are unknowingly stressed or out of your element. Mine is spending too much money and indulging other epicurean delights. I read too much; I take on too many projects; I spend too much time walking and exercising. When I started to feel homesick for things I knew I did not miss (like a lack of public transit), I knew I was amplifying everything to an improper extreme. And this was only one week into study abroad. However, even after such a short time, I feel like I am better for it. Regardless if you have ever spent time introspecting and analyzing yourself, you will be forced to see yourself in a new light. You may like or dislike what you see, or you may realize that you are a completely different person than who you imagined. And that is all okay and good.
Probably most happily, you will lose the fear of speaking the language when it is all around you and you hear other people from foreign countries speaking it around you too. But the most important pieces of information that I have gotten from students doing exchanges in the USA are: to speak the language as soon and as often as possible; and to not always be calling back home. In a way, the two are related. You can speak English, but for many study abroad students, you are studying abroad to learn the language of your host country. Speak the language terribly, make your mistakes, and move on. It happens. Most of the time people will indulge you and correct you when you are wrong. You can laugh about it. You can be stressed about it. But never let your errors define you. If you let that happen, then you will not speak. And if you do not speak, then you will lose out on a once in a lifetime opportunity, as cliché as that might sound. The same goes for talking to family. They are your family and you will miss them in some measure, but if you spend all your time on skype with them, then you are equally losing out on the life you could be enjoying abroad.
My consolation to you, dear reader, is to never let fear take complete hold over you. It will be there, but do not let it control you. It is okay to be afraid of making a mistake; it is not okay to never speak for fear of making a mistake. It is okay to be afraid of what awaits you in your host country. It is not okay to be so afraid of what could be that you stay in all the time. By virtue of taking on the responsibilities and work of being a study abroad student, you have shown courage that not many others have. Find maxims and ideas to hold on to, or a favorite book, or a favorite movie. Make friends. Keep busy. Profitez-vous!