How to Master Your Study Abroad Experience

Going abroad can be one of the most exciting and fun adventures of your college career… or it can be the worst. The trick to mastering your abroad experience is to prepare both mentally and physically. Let’s talk about how to do to that in the following post.

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Step 1: Be open to making new friends!

What went right: I went to a small school and I knew one other person who was going to be in my study abroad group with me. I was lucky. There were some people who had no friends who were going with them. At Gettysburg, the school was small enough that most people in the same class year knew of each other, even if they didn’t know each other personally. My friend Sarah and I had been fortunate enough to live together, and we shared an apartment with three boys – two of whom I had never met. We lived together for a month, which meant doing all of our cooking, cleaning, and TV watching together. The first week was an awkward dance, tiptoeing around each other trying not to make too much of a mess or be too loud. But eventually, we figured out that we had things in common and liked spending time together. We began grocery shopping together, taking day trips around London to Harry Potter World or see the sights that London is so famous for – we even went to get tattoos together! We got to know the other groups (there were 15 of us from Gettysburg – three flats of 5 people each) and began hanging out with them. Groups of us went to clubs and pubs, played games, and ate dinner together. They weren’t people who I would normally spend time with at Gettysburg, but when we were in this new situation, they felt more like home than anything else around me.

My birthday party with my classmates during my study abroad semester.

What went wrong: When I went abroad, most of my close friends were back home at school, planning to go abroad the semester after. Instead of being fully immersed in what I was doing in England, I was often sad about being “alone”. I was away from my friends and, even though I had people who wanted to hang out with me, it didn’t feel the same and I didn’t completely allow myself to connect with the people around me. I was also COMPLETELY homesick and was mopey instead of getting out and doing something fun with my friends. It’s okay to be homesick and call your parents or siblings or partner(s) every once in a while, but it is definitely more fun to go out and do something. I mean, when are you ever going to be this carefree in a new place?!

Step 2: Pack carefully!

What went right: Depending on where you’re traveling to, you may or may not have access to supermarkets and stores. Luckily, I feel like most places do, but my partner studied abroad in China and she didn’t (more on that in a later post). Assuming that you will have access to a store like I did, avoid packing things like sheets and bedding that are bulky and take up too much room in your suitcase. I would even advise leaving some bulkier items like extra pairs of shoes at home if you have a little bit of extra money to spend on those types of items. When I arrived in the UK, I had one pair of shoes that I wore every day. I would also suggest only traveling with travel-sized toiletries. Most places will have a pharmacy where you can get shampoo and conditioner that will suit your needs when you settle into your accommodations. It is also extremely helpful to note that you can get many of your school supplies when you arrive. You don’t need to travel with the extra weight from notebooks and folders when you can get it abroad.

What went wrong: When I was abroad, I ended up getting a lot of things that I needed while I was there such as scarves, shoes, and a pillow. By the time I was getting ready to leave, I didn’t get rid of the stuff that I had collected. I had given my blankets to the new study abroad students who were moving in so that they didn’t have to buy a new one, but I still had sheets, extra clothes, and shoes that were taking up room. I ended up having to carry an extra-heavy carry on with an extra-extra-heavy suitcase on the Tube to the airport. Let me tell you – that was not fun. If your city/country has thrift shops, don’t be afraid to sell or donate items that you might not need. There were a few items that I chose to be my keepsakes from my trip (a guitar pick that fits in my wallet and a chipped bowl that I use in my current apartment), but to be honest, most of the clothes aren’t items that I still use, and it feels like a waste to have brought them back.

Step 3: Find ways to save money!

What went right: Through my school, we were able to purchase a 16-25 rail card. This was a discount card for students that gave us up to 1/3 (I could be wrong with the numbers) off on all train tickets, and if I’m not mistaken, our Oyster card for the Underground as well. I was in the UK, so public transportation was very good. But, if you’re in another country, I would definitely advice looking into discounts for students/young people on transportation. In most cases, it would be worth purchasing a 1-year rail card, even if you’re only there for 4-6 months, if you plan to do a lot of traveling.

Another way that we saved money was by pooling our money for groceries. We received a stipend from our school for groceries every week. Shopping alone, I was spending over my budget each week because I had to buy things like milk, butter, and eggs for just myself. After a couple of weeks doing that, my flatmates and I agreed that we would pool our money and purchase items for communal use. We cooked meals together instead of going out to eat all the time. By the end of the week, if we had enough saved up, we would go out to eat or purchase alcohol with the remaining money. In countries that are less expensive than England, it’s also possible to go out to eat and find cheap eats which allow you to both eat out AND save money. Take some time to do some meal planning or research the restaurants nearby to budget and save.

What went wrong: As I mentioned before, I spent excess money on things that were easy enough to split amongst the people I was living with. What a waste! I also didn’t do any budgeting when I was abroad and went out to eat way more than I had money for. I also went to clubs, and bought a lot more alcohol than I needed.

Even though spending money on food is a good thing, if I could go back, I would eat out less and save that money for experiences such as traveling or attractions, or even more culinary adventures, in your host country. Prioritize what you want to do, create a budget, and try your best to stick to it.

Step 4: Figure out your phone plan!

What went right: When we first arrived in London, my professor took the class to a store where we could get new sim cards or purchase a new phone. I got a small phone where I could text and call, but I could use my iPhone for the internet. I didn’t know it at the time, but I also had a phone plan that could be used internationally. Once I figured that out, I was able to text, call, and use the internet (unlimited!!) while I was traveling, no matter which country I was in. Some plans include limited data, calls, and texting, but if you can add on for $20 a month for the four months you’re abroad, it might be cheaper than buying a whole new phone or phone plan.

What went wrong: Although I did have a phone that worked abroad, I didn’t know it at the time. I spent a month without being able to use 3G/LTE data, which was nice some of the time, but during my travels, I got lost. A LOT. I ended up getting lost in Munich with a friend and had to use a sketchy bar phone to call the Airbnb host and he had to come find us and pick us up. Not only did it suck getting lost late at night in an unfamiliar city, but we could have ended up getting into even more trouble.

Step 5: Prioritize school

What went right: Honestly, there wasn’t a lot that I did well here! My class in London was the only class I was taking at the time, so it was easy to put that first. We did a lot of walking tours and museum visits, so it fulfilled my travel desires. I spent my evenings doing school work and the afternoons were either spent with the class or exploring London. I did a good job managing my time and knowing when and how to do my work so that I had time to do other things I wanted.

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What went wrong: Once I got to Lancaster, I was taking difficult classes that had labs and many hours of work. I wanted to travel and, though I grabbed the notes and watched the lectures online, I skipped class and didn’t get to know many of my classmates or my professors. Because the classes were hard and confusing, I chose not to put them first. I rushed my homework, didn’t study like I should have, and I did poorly on my exams. If I have any advice, it would be to talk to your professors and the international student services to help you find tutors or other resources to help you excel. Try to plan your traveling or other activities when you have time, or manage your time so that you can do the traveling that you want.

Step 6: Take easy classes

What went right: Again, nothing really!

What went wrong: If you’re reading this a few years in advance, take my advice!! If you’re planning to take a semester abroad, DON’T take your Gen ed classes as a freshman. Save your English classes or Humanities classes for your study abroad semester. I ended up having to take Cell Biology, Statistics, and Real Analysis while abroad, but the people who took an English class, Sociology class, or Art class had the time to explore Europe, sleep, go clubbing, or just relax. AND they ended up getting good grades!

Step 7: Have fun!

What went right: I had a lot of fun while I was abroad! Though there were many things that weren’t so fun (being homesick, having difficult classes), I got to do a lot of fun things! I met up with my cousin in Glasgow, I explored Manchester with my friends, I went hiking, I traveled to five countries. You know yourself and what you’ll find fun, so try to plan those things while you’re abroad! My friends visited temples, learned to cook food native to the country where they were studying, went skiing, camped, and backpacked. There are so many cool opportunities out there!

What went wrong: If you’ve gotten this far, you know the reasons that I didn’t have fun. Overcome those sad feelings to go out and do something you can’t do when you’re at home! Bring your homework to a cute coffee shop if you want to get off campus, or meet with a classmate in the library. Whatever you prefer, go out and find something to keep you busy and make new friends!

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