Study Abroad For A Challenge, Not A Vacation

If you want to study abroad to experience a different culture and lifestyle, here’s some advice. If you want to study abroad for a vacation, expect to be challenged.

There’s this preconception that classes abroad are easy. Honestly, they can be. Previously, I’ve earned As effortlessly while abroad. It comes down to your academic background. It’s easy for those that are used to in college. Those are, often, the kind of students to pursue study abroad. We balance part time jobs, internships, and clubs with a full course load. When we’re with few responsibilities, like attending lectures and maybe interning, we end up with a lot of spare time we’re not used to. I never entirely got used to it. (This story proves it. I’m writing it from my dorm room in South India!)

However, studying abroad isn’t just about the classes. They’re a component of a larger, holistic experience. It’s about the bigger picture. It’s about the difficulties and differences you encounter. It’s about the people you meet. It’s about the mental math of converting U.S. dollars into foreign currency. It’s about falling in love with a place you’d never expect. It’s about clashing heads and making friends. It’s about participating in a community.

I’ve been on a program where I’m the only student from my college, and another where I’m only with students from my college. You’ll be grouped together with other students. You’ll have to deal with miscommunication and conflict resolution. You’ll have to sacrifice and compromise. You’ll get on each other’s nerves and want to get away. But you’ll also have amazing memories and unforgettable stories. You’ll taste delicious food and learn local history. You’ll walk away with the one of the best college experiences. You’ll rave about it for the next few years.

The following advice is for those that want to make the most of their experience abroad. It’s not for everyone, I’ll admit. However, if you’re still deciding on your host country, take the following suggestions into account. They’re heavily influenced by my semester abroad in Bangalore, India this spring.

  1. Pick a host country you don’t know much about. Maybe you vaguely remember learning about the country in world history class. Maybe you haven’t even heard of the country. The lack of knowledge only opens you up to a huge body of knowledge. It provides the opportunity to make the most out of your classes and excursions to museums, galleries, landmarks, etc.
  1. Travel somewhere that doesn’t speak your native language. Choose a destination with a mother tongue that isn’t yours. The local language of Bangalore is Kannada, the language of the state of Karnataka, despite the national languages of Hindi and English. It’s more interesting, and challenging, to communicate with non-native English speakers—even if you’re speaking in English. It’s frustrating and sometimes, entirely infuriating, but teaches you how to communicate better and more efficiently.
  1. Don’t look up pictures. Surprise yourself! When I committed to studying abroad in South India last fall, a former India study abroad student advised me not to research the city. It was a risk, since I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I listened. I applaud that student’s advice to this day. On my first day in the city, I remember being baffled by the traffic. It took us two and a half hours to travel twenty kilometers! (That’s less than fifteen miles!)
  1. Compare exchange rates. Program tuition might seem like a steal alone. However, the cost of living is definitely something to consider. Even if you’re lucky enough to find a program cheaper in Western Europe compared to South Asia, the Euro will always outweigh the cost. When I studied in the Czech Republic last summer, I caught onto this when I traveled outside the country on the weekends. I spent over a hundred dollars in two days in Paris just on food! A hundred dollars, even if I ate inside the city center, could last me two weeks in Prague. Naturally, you’ll have more opportunities to explore if you have sufficient funds

When you research possible study abroad programs, choose a country that challenges you. Choose a culture you don’t know much about. Choose a place you’d never think you’d visit. Deprive yourself of the lust that comes with looking at photographs online. Refrain from developing any expectations. Pick a destination with an affordable exchange rate. Study abroad for a challenge, not a vacation.

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