by Anne Paige Austin
Explore the Andes, become fluent in Chinese, become an expert on Italian wines or in French cuisine. There’s nothing better than breaking up four years (or more) of monotonous university classes with a term (or two, or three) abroad. Studying abroad takes a lot of planning and consists of much more than just hitting the books in different scenery. Here are some tips on how to prepare for the experience of a lifetime.
Finding the Right Program
CSA, CEA, CIEE, AHA, CCIS… searching through a sea of acronyms is enough to make your head spin when looking for study abroad opportunities. But the good news is that with so many organizations offering thousands of opportunities, you can be sure to find a program that’s as good as tailor-made for your specific needs. There was a time when studying abroad was limited to college students in their early 20s, but these days almost anyone can find a way to pack up their bags and ship out for a semester. Websites like studyabroad.com offer opportunities for everyone from high school students to adults 55 and older and are the perfect place to start if you’re making plans to study abroad.
If you are currently a university student, your university probably offers study abroad programs that are geared toward specific majors and allow you to receive credits that will count toward your degree. If you can find one of these that works for you, it’s probably your best bet. If none of them seem to be what you had in mind, don’t get discouraged – but keep in mind that you’ve got your work cut out for you. Many schools abroad allow you to apply directly to their school, while others offer programs through organizations like the Center for Study Abroad (CSA) and Cultural Experience Abroad (CEA). Either way you do it, participating in an outside program means lots of communication with professors and academic advisors to make sure that credits abroad will transfer back to your school.
While the nuts and bolts of academic credit are important, don’t forget to keep in mind the type of experience you want to have while abroad. Realistically, time spent being immersed in the culture, traveling, learning the language and building relationships with locals will greatly outweigh the time you spend hitting the books. That’s really why you wanted to study abroad anyway, right? That’s why it’s good to keep in mind the size of the city, any language differences, and nearby cultural attractions during your search as well.
Once you’ve decided on a program that’s right for you (and been accepted, of course), the next step is to begin planning. Depending on where you are going, you’ll need to take care of formalities such as getting a passport, applying for a student visa, arranging for flights and applying for financial aid. It’s also usually a good idea to get an international student ID card for both the discounts that it affords abroad and for general identification. If you’re headed to Europe, a Eurail pass may be another thing you’d like to consider before heading overseas.
After dealing with all of this paperwork (and shelling out a substantial amount of money), packing may seem like the easiest part of your study abroad preparation. All you have to do is toss a couple of things in a bag and you’re off, right? Packing, however, is the area where students most often make mistakes.
TAKE ONLY WHAT YOU CAN CARRY! This does not mean only what you can manage to carry in 100-yard spurts. I made this mistake and suffered sore arms and bruised body parts because of it. Remember that you will be navigating foreign transportation systems, speaking a foreign tongue and the last thing you’ll want to worry about is whether or not you’ll be able to carry your suitcase up the long flights of stairs in the subway tunnels. Not to mention the fact that you’ll call unnecessary attention to yourself by towing an obnoxiously loud rolling duffel bag over cobblestoned streets.
So, what’s your best bet? I’d recommend a high-capacity backpack that keeps your hands free and your eyes alert. Whether you’re staying for a semester or a full year, a backpack should give you plenty of room for everything you’ll need to take.
Some packing suggestions:
- Comfortable shoes
- A good guide book for the region you’ll be studying in (Let’s Go or Rough Guide are always good bets)
- A battery-powered travel alarm clock
- Foreign language dictionary
- Any medications and prescriptions you’ll need
- Debit card (usually the easiest way to get foreign currency that gets the best exchange rate)
- A camera (and the necessary memory cards or just enough film to get you started)
- Appropriate clothing that’s easy to mix and match (before you actually begin to pack, it’s probably a good idea to research the climate of the area where you’ll be studying and pack accordingly)
- Music (helps make long train rides go by faster)
- A sleeping bag and a tent can be handy if you plan on camping (a cheap way to see the country you’re studying in), but bulky if you’ve got other accommodation options available to you
- A small pack for daytrips
- A few pictures of family and friends to show to your host family (if you have one) or friends you make abroad
Do NOT pack:
- Any appliances (especially because voltage often differs in foreign countries)
- Extra toiletries, etc (you’ll be able to buy these things if you run out)
- Expensive jewelry or valuables
- Anything else you’re not willing to carry everywhere you go
More packing tips:
- Make sure to keep all important documents with you at all times.
- Pack a change of clothes, or at least underwear, in your carry-on. If your luggage gets lost, you’ll be grateful.
- Write down contact information for professors and advisors at your university in case you have any questions about credit transfers.
While you’ll be more aware of the material things you bring with you on your trip abroad (mostly due to the dead weight on your back), don’t forget to prepare yourself information-wise for the journey. Brushing up on local customs, politics, history, weather, cool places to visit, food and festivals will help prepare you for your time abroad and get you motivated to take full advantage of being overseas. Being a knowledgeable tourist will help you to get more out of your experience and help you relate better to the people that you meet along the way.
An open mind is probably the most important (and weightless) item to scribble onto your “to pack” list. It’s easy to get discouraged if you have preconceptions about how the trip will go. Flexibility is the key to getting the most out of your travel experience.
Making the Trip
Not even the most detailed guide can prepare you for the event of actually hopping on a plane and embarking on your study abroad experience. Luggage gets lost, flights and trains get missed, and itineraries get changed unexpectedly. The frustration of not being able to communicate your thoughts in another language can be infuriating, and ordering food in a foreign language can bring unpleasant surprises. Culture shock hits everyone at different times and in varying degrees. Homesickness can be minimal at one moment and bowl you over in the next. The key is to keep perspective and only take on as much as you can handle at one time. Either that, or get yourself out there and experience! The only way to become comfortable with a new culture is to find out what it’s all about, explore the traditions, meet the people and try your best to relax.
Oh, and don’t forget about cracking open those books every once in a while.