by Sarah Wilkinson, Class of ’17
Study abroad is one of the most incredible opportunities you have in college, and as long as you have the financial means and academic record, you’d be crazy not to go. After you graduate, you’ll likely go straight into a job and taking time off for travel will be difficult. Plus, you won’t get the slow and full immersion that a full semester in a foreign place provides, especially if you only go for a week or two.
But making the decision to go isn’t the same as making the most of your time abroad. It’s a great first step, but here are some other things you can do to make your semester memorable and incredibly worthwhile.
Be a Local
Do the locals walk everywhere or do they take public transportation? Where do the locals love to eat and hang out? Where do they do their shopping? What sites and landmarks are they most proud of? These are the places you want to go, the lifestyle you want to try and immerse yourself in so you really experience what it’s like to live there.
Put your map in your back pocket for an hour and just get lost in the city. Take some friends with you always, and be sure to see the city both in the light of day and when it’s all lit up at night. (That is, of course, if you’re studying abroad in a city.) The key to this is not forgetting your map at home; that could be very bad, especially if you don’t speak the native language and can’t ask for directions. The point of getting lost is immersing yourself in the culture, throwing yourself out of your comfort zone. These will be the times you most remember when you get back home, and one of the experiences from your time abroad that will help you grow the most.
Talk to the Locals
It will require some bravery, especially if you don’t speak the native language, but one of the most rewarding things you can do is talk to the locals. Ask them about their culture and tell them about yours. If you feel comfortable, ask them about their lives and tell them about yours. Ask them for restaurant, side trip, and site seeing recommendations. You will remember these conversations – both the good and the bad – and they will someday make you smile to reflect on them. Your experience will be so much more valuable and authentic if you put on your bravery hat and start a conversation.
Eat the weird local delicacy that looks strangely similar to cat tongues. Climb the mountain that locals have nicknamed, “Hiker’s Despair.” Learn the local dances and perform them in an initiation rite to the clapping cheers of everyone in town. Run through the city in the rain and kiss somebody you just met. Get hopelessly lost and when it starts to lightning, take shelter in a store that sells nothing but antique nesting dolls. Say “yes” more than you say “no,” and remember that you won’t have another chance like this exact one right now, so you better leap now rather than regret it later. But always, always, trust your instincts and be safe.
Keep a Journal
Pictures are great, but there’s nothing better than keeping a journal if you want to truly remember something later. Pictures capture the sights, but only your journal entries can capture the sounds, the smells, the way you were feeling at the exact moment an accompanying picture was taken. You will want to remember this experience later, and nothing will take you back like a detailed journal. For example, I went on a class trip to DC way back in sixth grade, and a few days ago I stumbled on the journal I kept for that trip. I was instantly back on the tour bus, in the Clover Café eating scrambled eggs, brushing my fingers gently across the names on the Vietnam Memorial, realizing for the first time that the world was so much bigger than just me. I am so glad I journaled about that trip and I’m so glad I kept it over the years. I feel connected to the girl I was then, to her becoming, and reading her words is like peering back through time, like being on those DC streets again as a 13-year-old. Do yourself a favor and write about your trip.
And perhaps most importantly…
Have fun on your study abroad adventure!
Sources: UMD Careers