Studying abroad was one of the most amazing opportunities that I’ve ever had, but I’ve been thinking a lot since I returned home from my study abroad experience about the things I wish I had known beforehand.
- Suitcase weight limits are very real. I have always prided myself on being able to squeeze just about ANYTHING into my suitcase, no matter how full, but had never been anywhere close to the limit before. When I arrived at the airport, however, I was shocked to discover that my bag was just barely under the weight limit. (Phew!) I probably would have packed differently if I had known that in advance.
- You will come home with more than you left with. This became a huge inconvenience for me on my return voyage when, after packing my bags to their max weight, I ended up having to put all of my heavier items (books, shoes, etc.) into my carry on duffel bag (with no wheels), as I waited in the several-hours-long border control line at the Charles De Gaulle airport. Don’t be like me. Leave extra weight (as well as space) in your luggage for gifts and souvenirs.
- A good host family can change your life. I was blessed with the most amazing host family I could have possibly asked for. When I first arrived, they were an amazing help as I found my way around the city. I also saw how valuable of a resource it is to know someone who can point you to all the right places to go and all the incredible sights to see in your host city. Before arriving abroad, I had already been told that staying with a host family and endeavoring to speak exclusively in my target language was the single best way to gain proficiency and to be immersed in the culture, and I would definitely agree. Throughout my stay, however, my host family became so much more to me than all of these things. They really did become my family away from home, we made some incredible memories together, and I think about them every day now that I am back in the United States. I’ve become a little bit homesick for them, and I can’t wait until I am able to go back to see them again!
- Branch out from the group you came with. There are many benefits to traveling in a group when you head off to an unfamiliar country, but it’s also important to make an effort to meet some other people as well. At the Institute where we studied, there were students from all over the world, and we were able to learn so much from them! Of course, it’s also a unique experience to befriend people who live in the place where you’re studying. That is the absolute best way to experience life abroad in the most authentic way. If you only stick to the people you already know, you will end up missing out on an incredible opportunity!
- If you’re studying a language, you have to choose to speak it everyday. Before I arrived abroad, I assumed that it would be easy for me to speak my target language, since I would be immersed in it everyday. Unfortunately, it takes a little bit more effort than that! I had many English-speaking classmates (and housemates), and it took a lot of discipline and self-control to keep speaking French, since the temptation to default to English was always lingering there. I also learned that many people who lived there wanted an opportunity to practice their English, so no matter how well I spoke when I addressed them in French, there were some people who still responded to me only in English. This was frustrating at first, but I grew more comfortable with it the longer I was abroad. The only way that you will improve in your target language is by using it very deliberately on an everyday basis!
- Go exploring! No one studies abroad just to sit in a classroom all day. Take advantage of your opportunity to discover all that your host country has in store! If you have free time on weekends, take the time to travel. Experience all that you can while you’re abroad because you may never get the same opportunities again! Many of the best memories (and craziest stories) that I have from my study abroad experience are from the times when I traveled outside of my host city!
- It’s hard to stay in touch with loved ones back home. Time differences matter! By the time I was out of class in the evenings, my family and friends back home were often just starting their day. Thankfully, I am a night owl, which boded well for this. I had an international plan for my phone, so I could call home. However, international phone calls (even with a data plan) can become very expensive very quickly. My original solution to this was to use FaceTime or Skype, but the wifi I found abroad was usually not a high enough quality to support the calls. This was a really huge unforeseen difficulty for me. I would definitely recommend setting up a plan with your loved ones about how you to stay in touch before you leave the US. However, be willing to adapt the plan as you learn what actually works once you arrive.
- International data plans are very limited. I didn’t know till we went to order my international plan that most plans are limited to only 100 or 200 mb of data for the entire month! If you are used to an unlimited data plan, either be prepared to do a lot of cutting back, or consider the possibility of switching to a carrier from your host country for the duration of your study abroad!
- Don’t be ashamed of your nationality, but respect other cultures too. When I arrived abroad, I became very aware of my American-ness, but with a deep desire to learn and live the culture of my host country as authentically as possible. Eventually, this got easier, and I became more confident and comfortable with my own identity as I learned and grew. Be open to new perspectives. You may be surprised what you discover!
- Take lots of pictures, but live in the moment. I became known by my classmates abroad for snapping what might be considered as an excessive number of pictures of basically everything. After returning home, I am definitely glad to have all of these pictures, but it’s also important to enjoy the moments that are not photographed! The reason that pictures are important to me is not because they exist for themselves, but because they remind me of whatever was happening at the moment when they were taken. They remind me of the people I encountered and befriended, the places where we made memories, and the things that we enjoyed doing. The best way to make memories that you will treasure for a lifetime is to make the most of each and every moment!
I wish you all the best on your next great adventure! Bon voyage!