So, brave and adventurous student, you are considering going on a study abroad! Well done. You have decided on places you want to go, languages and cultures you want to learn more about, and have scripted the perfect airport goodbye speech to your family and friends.
Here are some helpful tips and considerations to keep in mind to get the most out of your time away.
Before you leave:
- Know that doubts are natural. It can be terrifying experience moving to a new country. Remind yourself of why you are going abroad and the goals you have for your time away. If you’re not uncomfortable and challenging yourself, it is hard to grow. Last minute panic is normal, but don’t let that stop you. You’ll soon learn: a lot of being abroad is adapting on the fly.
- Don’t leave all the planning and packing until the last minute. There is likely a lot of paperwork you need to complete well in advance of your departure, including forms for the university, as well as passport and visa applications. You may also need to stock up on items unavailable in your host country. You never know when you may be in urgent need some of duct tape, toilet paper, toiletries and hygiene products, or a needle and thread. The versatility of duct tape is incredible. I have seen it patch up boxes, backpacks, bicycles, canoes, clothes, sandals, beds, wallets, fridges, chairs, air mattresses, cuts and wounds, dishes – the possibilities are truly endless! Certainly a worthwhile investment.
- Try to learn as much as you can about your host country. Read up on the history, current politics, and culture. Brush up on your foreign language skills if necessary. Nothing can substitute the experience of actually being there, but having a grasp on these things is paramount to preparing and adapting to your new home.
While you are abroad:
- Although you will want to experience all your host country has to offer, pace yourself. You don’t want to hit all of your list of places in one week and spend the next 12 weeks reminiscing about your first week.
- Be flexible. And when you think you are being flexible, be more flexible. Having travel plans is great, however, things will most definitely not go as planned. Transit gets delayed or breaks down altogether, hostels appear much more appealing and safe in your guidebook than in real life, items get lost, and credit cards sometimes fail you. I once arrived at my destination expecting to stay in a hotel, but there was a misunderstanding about my arrival date. I dragged my jet-lagged self around the city looking for a place to stay. It was scary at the time, but it was beautiful sunny day, and I got to explore the whole city in my first afternoon there! You cannot always influence what happens, but you can make sure your attitude and expectations stay in check.
- Still keep in touch with family and friends. They can keep you updated on what you are missing at home. Navigate these interactions with caution, however. Remind yourself of all the unique experiences you are having. Catching up is great, but the last thing you want is #FOMO
- Keep in mind your background and possible position of privilege relative to students, friends, and other international students in your host country. Also, keep in mind how people of different socio-economic status, nationality, race, and religion are perceived in your host country. You may perceive inequalities, discrimination, or cultural practices you don’t agree with. However, it is important to be open-minded about the cultural norms in your host country, as well as how your own cultural background may be influencing your perceptions and assumptions. It is also important to be knowledgeable of the cultural practices and the laws of your host country so you can stay safe while abroad. This is where doing your research (see point #3) is necessary! Also, don’t be afraid to talk to people you meet in your host country about their culture in order to better understand it, and to share how aspects of your own culture may be different.
- Document your feelings about living in a new culture and how that makes you reflect on your own culture. Culture is to people what water is to fish. You are inherently immersed in it, meaning that it’s difficult to fully understand something you have spent your whole life relatively unaware of. You must be removed from it in order to understand it. Looking back at your journal will allow you to track changes in your perceptions.
When you return:
- Keep in touch with friends you made abroad. It will help your transition. Make plans to see each other again, if possible.
- It’s ok to be critical of your culture, friends, and family when you return from an abroad experience. This is particularly true when returning to a developed, wealthy country, like Canada, after living in a developing country for months. However, you should make an effort to recognize why and how your culture dictates certain ideals. Change your criticisms into productivity! Brainstorm ideas of how you can share your newfound knowledge without sounding patronizing.
Going on a study abroad will allow you to grow, both academically and personally. Making the best of each moment is key to success. Find out more about the opportunities offered by the University of Guelph Center for International Programs. Safe travels, globetrotter!
Hilary Hagar is a University of Guelph alumni who majored in International Development, with emphasis in Economic and Business Development. During her time at the University of Guelph, Hilary participated in the Cuba Semester Abroad, and has volunteered with International Development Student Society, Student Help and Advocacy Centre, and Student Foodbank. While in Cuba, she developed an interest in food systems and environmental resource stewardship. Hilary’s other interests include global economic inequality, economic growth, and famine.