What I Wish I Had Known Before Studying Abroad
What students wish they knew before taking the plunge of studying abroad.
Choosing to study abroad was hands down one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I was lucky enough to be able to study overseas multiple times in several countries throughout high school and college. And each experience was filled with unforgettable memories, incredible people, and so much laughter.
There are very few things, if any, that I would change about any of my adventures. But looking back, I will admit there are one or two (okay, more!) things that I could have done to better prepare myself for the huge experience beforehand.
When It Comes to Packing, Less Is More
This is something I heard over and over again before I left...and yet I didn’t listen. Before I set out for a semester in Costa Rica, I jampacked every possible item I could into two giant suitcases. I was convinced I needed all of it...turns out I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t end up using even half of the things I brought.
Even worse, by the time I was done picking out souvenirs for myself and every other single person on the planet I knew, there was no possible way to fit everything back into the suitcases for the trip home. I will never forget the look on my host mom’s face as she sat on my bed shaking her head and laughing at me as I, determined as ever, tried to cram as much of my belongings into the bags as possible.
Money Isn't Everything Everything...But It Definitely Helps
Before leaving for a trip to China, one of my college advisors told me to be ready for the unexpected and to prepare as much as possible. By this time, I was a pretty experienced traveler who had spent a pretty good amount of time overseas. I knew he was right and that as much preparation as possible was important, including getting my finances in line. I took a considerable amount of time researching the cost of living and the cost of any items I would need while I was there. I even set up a meeting with my bank to find out who their partner institution in China was to help me avoid fees.
I didn’t want to travel with too much cash so I only took out a little bit beforehand with a plan to get some more from an ATM on my first day. And on that very first day, the ATM ate my debit card. All I had left was a small amount of cash and a VISA credit card. As it turns out, most businesses in China don’t accept American credit cards. I had to be very creative with my purchases for the next week until my bank could ship me a new card. And thankfully, I was traveling with friends who were nice enough to help me out.
Culture Shock Goes Both Ways
Culture shock is one of those things you can read about but can't possibly understand until you experience it for yourself. I know I personally couldn’t imagine myself ever having culture shock. To me, it sounded like having a minor panic attack.
But the thing is, not everyone experiences culture shock in the same way. For me, it was more like a feeling of utter exhaustion. It felt like I was working so hard and had to put in so much effort just to get the tiniest thing accomplished. I remember thinking how the most routine things (figuring out how to work the shower, ordering food, getting from home to school) took an insane amount of effort. But I didn’t recognize these feelings as culture shock until much later.
I wish I had taken the time to read up on other people’s experiences with culture shock and the symptoms they had. I didn’t recognize my own feelings as culture shock because they weren’t the signs I had been warned about.
But at the end of the day, no matter how much you prepare yourself, culture shock can’t completely be avoided. In the moment, the best thing to do is to just be patient. Another thing I found helpful was to find a little bit of time every day, even if it was just for five minutes, to connect with someone back home. When you’re experiencing culture shock, it means you’re craving your own normal. Finding a way to connect with that normal, even if only for a few minutes, can make all the difference in the world.
But the most surprising thing to me about culture shock was that I actually experienced it twice. The second time was when I arrived back home in the U.S. This is known as reverse culture shock . For me, this was even harder than the initial shock I had abroad and something I wish I had been aware of beforehand.
It's Up to You to Make the Most Out of Your Experience
Not everyone has the same experience studying abroad and some walk away with a more enriching one than others. The truth is, studying abroad is one of those things where you only get out of it what you put into it.
Although my travels were full of fun and adventure, there was also a lot of hard work and effort that I had to put in. Just like back home, I had good days and I had bad days. And sometimes the bad days seemed worse because I was in an unusual situation that made everything more complicated. But at the end of the day, it all came down to my attitude.
I’m sure you’re tired of people telling you to have an open mind (I know I am). But in this case, an open mind is truly the key. Don’t compare what’s happening around you to the way things are done in the U.S., or wherever your home country may be. Constantly comparing wherever you are to home is pointless and will block you from gaining a true understanding of your new surroundings.
I highly recommend you take the time to prepare yourself as much as you can before studying abroad. But also realize that you’ll never be fully prepared. Embrace the fact that the unexpected will happen and enjoy the ride.
This story was written by StudySoup, a peer-to-peer learning marketplace that connects top students in the class with those who need a little help. Top students can upload their notes and study guides to the StudySoup Marketplace, providing their peers with helpful materials while also earning some extra cash.