Gazing out the window as your flight lands in your study abroad destination, you think, “I am beginning the journey of a lifetime. Anything can happen and everything WILL happen.” But before you know it, five months has flown by in what seems like five minutes and you’re on your way back to the United States. Don’t let time pass you by; control the fate of your once-in-a-lifetime journey by following these six tips to make the most of your study abroad experience!
1. Make a bucket list.
Follow the lead of Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, and travel with a mission. Even if your goals aren’t to find spirituality in India or fall in love in Bali, you’ll feel equally as satisfied if you accomplish every item on your list while abroad!
Sarah Hadi, a collegiette from the University of Kentucky, created a travel bucket list before living in Bad Nauheim, Germany as an exchange student. “My advice is to put together a list of everything you want to accomplish, and research how to go about doing so,” she says. Load up on travel books and create a plan before you arrive so you don’t waste time better spent crossing experiences off your list. Creating a bucket list will increase your already-overflowing excitement leading up to your trip and you’ll be prepared to spend the duration of your stay much more wisely.
The good news is there are an unlimited number of resources you can employ to create your list! Start by asking a friend or family member who has traveled to the same destination and then move on to upperclassmen who have also participated in the program. Their ideas will kick-start your list so you can expand to online research through sites such as Time Out and TripAdvisor. Finally, for the most complete source of destination must-dos, utilize a travel guide from a company such as Fodor’s, Frommer’s, Michelin Guide, or Lonely Planet.
One great way to stay on top of your list while abroad is by hanging it up in your room and crossing off goals as you go. Each time you see your list, you’ll remember how great it felt to follow through with an aspiration and will crave the rush all over again. However, don’t worry if you can’t accomplish every single thing on your list. “I think it's important to keep your goals in mind while traveling abroad, but allowing for flexibility is equally as important,” advises Sarah. “Ultimately, enjoying yourself and making the most out of your trip is what matters most when you look back at it all!”
2. Live like a local.
Since you’re a travel-savvy, independent woman, we know you’ll travel abroad again one day. But will you live in an exotic locale for an extended period of time again? Not necessarily. So take advantage of “being a local” this time around and completely immerse yourself in the culture of the community where you are living.
Kelsey Mulvey, a student at Boston University, made the most of her study abroad experience in London by living like a Brit. “I found that doing ‘local things’ helped me feel like I made the most of my experience,” says Kelsey. This can include participating in cultural traditions, conversing in the native language and appreciating the local cuisine.
“I tried new brands of food in lieu of my American go-tos and went to London's chain cafes instead of Starbucks,” says Kelsey. Since you can eat American food at home for the rest of your life, take advantage of the delicious local flavors while you’re away! “You won't make the most out of your experience if you don't try some of the non-commercial/local things,” adds Kelsey. “You're not going to embrace the culture if you stick to what you know!” So when in Rome, fight the urge to dine at the “fancy” McDonald’s and do yourself a favor by splurging on the best homemade pasta you’ll ever taste.
Although travel sites and guides are great sources for learning about the local culture, the best (and most fun) way to integrate yourself is by making some local friends! If your classes aren’t integrated with local students, expose yourself to native students by joining a club or sports team at the university where you are studying. Not only can you hang out with your foreign friends in the local hot spots, but you’ll live like a local in ways that a book could never show you.
3. Actually STUDY abroad.
While culturally immersing yourself, don’t forget about your academics! If your goal is to only have fun abroad, you might miss out on a life-changing academic experience that could influence your career path or your major, cultivate research opportunities when you return home and even lead to traveling abroad again in the future.
Hope Morrill, who recently graduated from Georgetown University, found her “academic calling” while abroad in Madrid, Spain. “Studying in Madrid gave me enough time to really think about what I was learning in school and why I wanted to be there,” says Hope. “Spanish culture revolves around art and views it as an integral part of society. I’ve always loved the field, but I discovered a passion for art when I realized how important it can be in day-to-day life.”
Hope’s academic enlightenment while abroad changed her life: upon returning home from Spain, she set out to pursue a Ph.D. in Art History. “You really get out of the experience what you put in,” adds the future museum art curator. “If you want your experience to be life-changing, you have to push yourself.”
Have fun, collegiettes, but don’t forget that you are studying abroad. If you can, try to refrain from turning your adventure into the sequel to EuroTrip.
4. Step out of your comfort zone.
While abroad, don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. Say YES to adventure, and when an opportunity comes your way, take it!
When Michelle Lewis, HC's Senior Editor and recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, studied abroad in Montpellier, France, she learned that sometimes it's better to be spontaneous rather than plan everything out. “My host mom used to say ‘il faut profiter,’ which basically means ‘carpe diem’ in French,” says Michelle. Michelle took this advice and seized every day while she was in Europe. Channelling a constant "why not?" attitude, Michelle ditched other plans to go to a French chocolate expo, lied about her heritage to drink wine with a cute Irish guy, and took a spontaneous ski trip to the Alps using snowgear borrowed from a hostel and sunglasses instead of goggles!
Michelle’s abundance of random yet amazing experiences in France are evidence that sometimes the best memories come from the adventures you have when you ditch other plans to do things “just because.” Think about Midnight in Paris: if Owen Wilson’s character hadn’t followed a carriage back in time to a chic party in the 1920s, he never would have met Ernest Hemingway, and Woody Allen wouldn’t have won the Oscar for Best Screenplay.
5. Write a blog.
As a travel-savvy collegiette jetsetter, you may feel like you have no time to record your adventures in a blog because you’re too busy enjoying them! But when you look ahead to the end of your whirlwind adventure, you’ll realize the longing to relive your once-in-a-lifetime experiences and soon your blog will ensure that Memory Lane will only be one click away.
Rachel Lytle, former Campus Correspondent for HC Penn State, was a devout blogger while she studied abroad in Alicante, Spain. “I re-read my blog all the time and it helps me remember everything and relive every experience,” says Rachel. “Believe it or not, the memories start to fade.”
You can create your blog in just a few minutes with the ease of blog platforms such as Blogger, WordPress, and Tumblr. As an added bonus, keeping a blog will allow your family and friends to stay up-to-date with your experiences through posts and pictures, resulting in less time you have to spend narrating every detail over Skype and more time you can spend exploring.
Rachel also recommends writing a blog to keep track of the personal growth that is likely to follow any soul searching you undergo abroad. “Writing everything down really helps to organize all of your emotions and changing thoughts while abroad—and trust me, words can barely even capture the start of it,” she says.
6. Balance travel with staying local.
There is a great temptation to travel while abroad, particularly in Europe, because transportation is cheap and everywhere seems so close. However, the frequent traveler faces the risk of missing out on the incredible sights nearby as well as forming new friendships and practicing the local language.
Rickelle Hernandez, a collegiette at Duke University who studied in Madrid, Spain, stayed within the country as much as possible while only traveling to the places at the top of her to-do list. “I listened to the advice of my program leaders and decided not to turn ‘Duke in Madrid’ into ‘Duke in Europe,’” says the Spanish major. “I’ll always be able to go back to Europe and visit the places I missed, but I’ll never be able to recreate my abroad experience in Madrid.”
Rickelle refrained from turning her time abroad into a “typical tourist trip” as much as possible. “I explored all of the local areas and took the train into neighboring cities,” she says. “I went flamenco dancing, saw Spanish movies and ate at local restaurants my Spanish professors recommended. The best part was spending time with my host mom and really getting to know Madrid.”
There is an alternative way to see other countries without leaving your program, however, by planning a trip when the program is finished! Ideally, your new friends from the program will join you, but if you must travel alone, stay safe by checking out HC’s Guide to Traveling Solo.
Although following these six tips will guarantee an amazing experience, always keep in mind a seventh tip as well: be safe and remember that Liam Neeson isn’t going to save you in times of trouble. Have the time of your life, but don’t enter any situations that could turn into the plot of Taken. Safe travels, collegiettes!