A Tale of Two Cities: Navigating Cultural Differences on Two Study Abroads

Morgan, a senior sociology major at Boise State University, studied abroad with USAC twice in 2021 – first in Alicante, Spain during the summer followed by a fall semester in London, England. We spoke with Morgan about her desire to study abroad in two locations, how her experiences helped her grow as a person and student, and more.

Why did you decide to study abroad twice in two different locations instead of extending your summer in Spain?

I have a strong desire to travel and experience different cultures, so I took the opportunity to visit two different countries instead of staying in one so that I could enjoy as many new things as possible. When I was in Spain I was able to challenge myself with learning a new language, experience the Mediterranean lifestyle, and try new cultural foods I had never had before. After my time in Alicante I craved an opposed adventure and I settled on London so I could live in a large, extremely diverse English-speaking city that, while somewhat similar to the United States, provided enough differences that I still felt like a foreigner. In London I was focused more on my academic studies, visiting the famous attractions, and exploring who I was as a person. I am grateful for both study abroad trips and wouldn’t change going to two countries instead of one! 

Morgan smiles in front of Stone Henge during a field trip in England.

What were the benefits of studying abroad in two different countries? How did you navigate cultural differences between each?

I think the biggest benefit of studying abroad in two different countries is that each country challenged me in different ways. In Spain I had to navigate serious cultural differences such as language, living conditions (no dryer, no A/C), and a general lifestyle that was a lot more laid back then what I was used to. Not to mention restaurants not opening for dinner until 8 p.m. and staying out at night until 4 a.m. being normal! With the help of my USAC cohort I was able to navigate these differences in no time, however, and had fun doing so. In London, there was no language barrier and I was able to come to grasps with my surroundings a bit easier. The biggest shock, however, was just the amount of multiculturalism and diversity in the city. I come from Boise, Idaho where there is a large lack of diversity and exposure to different ethnicities. The apartment I lived in while in London was in a majority African neighborhood so I got to meet all types of wonderful people with a different story than mine, and I felt like I had merged with a community that embraced me. Feeling embraced by my local neighbors helped me navigate all of the cultural differences I experienced in London.  

Why did you choose Alicante and London? How did these programs fit into your personal or professional goals?

I chose Alicante and London firstly because they offered sociology courses. With Alicante, however, I loved the location because I love the ocean and Mediterranean. I also knew a bit of Spanish and wanted to develop my language skills and make friends with locals. I also wanted to experience a brand new culture entirely different from mine (new food, clothing, architecture, etc). For London, the biggest thing I wanted to experience was life in a large multicultural city. I got to meet people from all over the world and experience a completely different school system then I was used to. Being there also helped me become more adapted to all the different cultures around me and tested me in every way possible. 

Morgan and two friends pose for a photo in Barcelona, Spain.

Did you participate in any extra activities while abroad?

I did partake in a language exchange program in Alicante, organized by our USAC advisor. We got matched with Spanish students at the university who also wanted to practice English and we met up several times to exchange language and do fun activities, such as paddle boarding and laying on the beach.

What cultural differences surprised you most between the U.S. and your two host cities? 

In Spain, there is no polite small talk. I hear this stereotype is thrown at Londoners, but I truly felt this difference more in Alicante! Now this is not to say Spaniards aren’t friendly; every one I met was open and accepting. However on the public transport, in class, and on the beach everyone keeps to themselves and does not give a gracious smile or a ‘how are you’? This can be jarring when coming from a country that holds friendliness to strangers in high regard, but I eventually grew to enjoy this aspect of Spain living. 

I was surprised how many people don’t drive in London! I knew their subway was infamous, but I didn’t meet a single college student or older adult that had a car or drove. The subway system is elaborate and even more so is the bus system. I personally prefer the bus system because there are many bus routes that go from one side of town to the other while you often have to transfer lines on the subway. But honestly, coming home after my time in London I appreciated my car! Being able to use public transport is definitely cheaper, but I actually prefer the freedom of having my own way to get somewhere. 

Morgan wears a mask while exploring in London, England.

Did you feel more prepared to study abroad in London following your first summer in Alicante? How did your previous travel experiences prepare you for study abroad? 

My previous travel experiences before going abroad were only domestic, I had never been international before. But, I researched the country I was going to extensively each time and familiarized myself with the environment before going. I think this really helped prevent complete culture shock. I felt more prepared to study in London in terms of international travel (how to go through customs, navigating large airports, and managing long flights). However, since the two countries are very different, I did not feel more ready to study abroad in a new country in general as I had to learn how a completely new culture operated.

What was your experience studying abroad during COVID-19? What made you decide to continue your study abroad despite the pandemic?

I traveled to Spain in the summer of 2021. During this time COVID-19 was pretty serious in Europe, and I believe almost every other USAC trip was shut down other then mine and a couple others. For the first month and a half in Spain it was very strict, mandatory masks inside and outside. Plus, an order to only travel within the country, no traveling outside of Spain. While the mask regulation was a bit annoying in the Alicante humidity, I did not feel it hindered my time there. Eventually masks were allowed to be off outside and I was able to travel to Barcelona and the island of Mallorca. While COVID-19 was present, it was not strongly felt. In London, regulations were very loose. During Fall of 2021, England was one of the few countries without almost any regulations. I was able to go to clubs, pubs, and all other activities just fine. Vaccines were encouraged and masks for the most part were optional. Even with the pandemic I felt this time during my academic career was my final chance to study abroad and I wasn’t going to let the virus take it from me. I traveled safely and with caution and I believe doing so helped my abroad experience feel normal even during a pandemic. 

Morgan admires local architecture in Alicante, Spain.

How did you fund and budget for two study abroad sessions? 

Honestly, studying abroad is expensive! I know some people claim it can be the same price as a United States college semester, but for me, it was definitely pricey. The biggest cost was the program itself, and then after that food and things I needed to buy for daily life. In order to afford study abroad I worked part time during the school year and was able to get some help from my grandparents, which is what made my abroad experience possible. My best tip budget-wise would be to overestimate! You will want to go out with friends, you will want to buy some comforts from home, and you will want to travel. Unfortunately all these things cost money and planning for anything and everything is key.

What advice do you have for students interested in studying abroad? What about those curious about studying abroad twice?

My advice is if you are on the fence, DO IT! You will make lasting memories and probably some lifelong friends. Money comes and goes but your time in a new country with new people will make a huge impact on who you are as a person, the price is definitely worth what you get out of it. For those wanting to study abroad twice my best advice is to carefully decide where your next place will be. Assess what you did/didn’t like about your original study abroad experience. Do you want to go someplace completely different? Someplace more similar to the United States? A big or a small city? These are all things I wish I would have more closely considered when choosing London to study abroad for the second time. While I enjoyed my time there, in the end I wish I would have gone with a smaller city potentially close to my roots in Italy. Even now reflecting on the choice I did make, it was still a good one as it forced me to understand what I did and did not like in an abroad experience and pushed me out of my comfort zone. Studying abroad with USAC was one of the greatest things I’ve ever done in my college career and I’d do it again a thousand times over!

Morgan and friends smile while out in London.
Ready to jumpstart your study abroad journey or head abroad for a second time? Explore 2022 and 2023 program offerings on the USAC website today.