Study abroad is a deeply personal experience and, if approached properly, can change the course of your life. The beauty of study abroad is that you really can’t predict what your experience will be like, no matter how many stories your friends tell you about their time abroad, and you’ll always head home with a new perspective and a suitcase full of lessons.
I studied abroad nearly a decade ago, so I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the lessons I’ve learned. And as a USAC employee, my exposure to the professional side of study abroad has shown me a few things I wish I had known before I went abroad. Lucky for you, I’m sharing some of these lessons with you.
Don’t Get Tunnel Vision When it Comes to Location. Consider All Your Options.
It sounds cliché, but your study abroad experience can change your life. Between the immersion activities you’ll try, professional opportunities you’ll participate in, people you’ll meet, and places you’ll go, there is a lot that can happen during study abroad that will shape who you are as a person. That being said, choose your program wisely. Really take your time reviewing all of your options and reflecting on what you really want out of a program.
When I studied abroad, I had my heart set on a particular city and didn’t look beyond that. Now, however, I know that other programs would have been more beneficial to my personal, academic, and professional growth. Take time to set some study abroad goals and look at all the programs that fit your agenda. USAC carefully crafts its programs around a variety of factors, including affordability, academic focus, and immersion opportunities, so there truly is something for everyone.
Go Off The Beaten Path.
If you really want to immerse in a culture and master the local language, you’re going to have to take the road less traveled. While the big, bucket-list locations are definitely worth visiting, you’re likely to get a more authentic experience in a less touristy city. Step outside your comfort zone and consider programs in a less popular area and save Paris and Florence for a quick visit.
Additionally, consider going somewhere your friends aren’t going. Studying abroad with a group of friends sounds enticing because you will arrive with a pre-set support system, but if you’re anything like me, that means you are less likely to do what it takes to immerse in the culture (i.e. use the local language, meet locals, etc.) and make new friends along the way. Make plans to meet up with your friends over break and settle down in a city all by yourself. You’ll be a better person for it. Trust me.
Really Get To Know Your Program Staff
One thing I regret doing is not making more of an effort to connect with my program staff. I wish I had spent more time communicating with an advisor before departure to discuss program options, packing necessities (and things to skip), and scholarship opportunities. I know now that both advisors and on-site staff have more than enough experience and knowledge to guide me to my city’s hidden gems (again, off the beaten path).
It will be worth it to take the time to get to know the people that have worked so hard to help make your study abroad experience special, including the USAC Central Office staff, your on-site program staff, and the alumni support team. Your USAC team strives to help make your study abroad experience as incredible as possible, and you’ll cherish those relationships for years to come.
Set a Budget and Stick to It.
Regardless of how you finance your study abroad, it’s important to keep an eye on your bank account. I spent quite a bit of time saving up for study abroad before I left, and I felt comfortable with what I had saved when I left, but I did a terrible job of keeping track of what I was spending my money on.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the “You-Only-Live-Once” (YOLO) mindset while abroad, especially while traveling, but trust me when I say that coming home with a completely empty bank account is not fun. If I could do it all over, I would portion my savings into a few different categories:
- Program expenses for things like USAC fees, optional tours, and passport costs.
- Daily expenses for things like groceries, rent, and transportation.
- Travel expenses for more fun things like train tickets, hostels, and museum tickets.
- And an emergency fund that I do not touch unless absolutely necessary.
Splitting up your budget will help you track where your money is going and can help prioritize your spending. It will also likely help you avoid having to buy an additional suitcase to get all of your new clothes and souvenirs home (oops!).
Pro Tip: Check out the interactive budget sheets under “Program Fees & Deadlines” on the USAC website. Select your study abroad term and then play around with the features to help you better estimate your study abroad budget including meals, utilities, books, and more.
Give Yourself a Break!
It’s tempting to fill every free moment with something during your time abroad. Trust me, I get it. The whole point is to explore a new country and immerse in a culture, and you can’t do that by sitting in your apartment. However, it’s okay to take it easy every now and then.
I spent nearly every weekend abroad traveling (either on a program field trip or with my friends), and I wish I hadn’t. By then end of my semester, I was so burned out and exhausted that I barely did anything my last few weeks in my host city. Make an effort to take things slow and know that the time you spent wandering neighborhoods and reading at your local café will likely be just as special as the trip you take to Barcelona. Allow yourself to recharge like you would at home; just because you’re abroad doesn’t mean your body doesn’t need the rest!
Nicole studied abroad in France in 2012 and is currently USAC’s Marketing Communication Specialist.