Enriching and character building are two traits often attributed to international study-abroad experiences but if you don’t embrace the experience to its full extent, the time might as well have been spent in your grandmother’s basement. While studying and living abroad there are a few things one must always remember and having spent quite a few years in a few different countries, I thought it prudent to compile this Top Ten list in an effort to advise and encourage the next generation of globe-trotters. Of course there are plenty of things to know and remember, however I have chosen ten general areas that will hopefully set guidelines for a safe and life-changing trip to be remembered always.
1. ANTICIPATE THE UNEXPECTED
When traveling abroad, hope for an adventure while planning for a disaster. Aside from arranging for or planning transportation from the airport to your pre-determined place of lodging (and I sincerely suggest pre-determining arrangements), have an idea of where you’re going, what kind of climate you’ll encounter, and always be prepared with a Plan B. The best advice is to pack a few essentials in your carry-on so if you get stuck in a layover or if your bags get lost, you at least have a toothbrush and a clean pair of drawers.
2. THE ONLY PERSON YOU HAVE TO TRUST IS YOURSELF
Usually trusting your gut is what gets you overseas in the first place. You need a change so you take the plunge, or the plane as it may be. When out in the world, your instincts are your best resource, but sometimes you need to develop them. You might be having a great time studying abroad, making friends and going out experiencing everything life has to offer, but you need to remember to always listen to the little voice in your head and to react to the pull in the pit of your stomach. Don’t lose yourself in your exuberance; it’s okay to let your cynic out every once in a while. Every culture is different but malice is universal. You need to maintain a healthy level of skepticism all the time because, more than likely, it will get you out of more than one sticky situation. Don’t rely on the kindness of strangers, but don’t always be so quick to dismiss it, either.
You might not be able to speak the local language and you may make repeated social missteps, but if you remain humble, with an open mind and bottomless enthusiasm, your efforts will be appreciated and respected. By recognizing and accepting yourself as the outsider, the visitor, and, yes, I hate to admit it, the tourist, you allow yourself to gain perspective on an entirely different level and you are able to take more in and appreciate it with reverence.
4. LEARN HOW TO TALK TO STRANGERS
This might be the most humbling lesson of all, but you need to speak, speak, speak! Speak any language you can think of, to whoever will listen. The only way you will successfully learn a language is if you use it in your everyday life. Your accent doesn’t have to be perfect, the tenses don’t even have to be correct, all you have to do is try. A good tip is to go to bars or cafes, have a drink and mix it up with some locals. Your inhibitions will be lowered a bit and you will be less self-conscious as you learn. Use over-exaggerated hand gestures, draw pictures, use any tool you can think of to learn and practice, you’ll be surprised how much you can pick up, especially when you need to.
You may find yourself in a country and/or culture that is completely different from your own. You should really do some research about your destination before you go otherwise you could wind up committing some serious social offenses. In some countries, you aren’t supposed to smoke on the street, in others it is illegal not to cross on the crosswalk, while in others there are 24-hour quiet hours on Sundays. Breaking these laws of social order may seem insignificant to a visitor, but that visitor must remember at all times that they are a guest in that country and are in no position to judge any tradition or custom. Traveling and studying abroad is designed to expand the horizons of the student and as such the student must embrace, and most of all respect, the community that hosts him.
Every kid who packs up and leaves home must take on a whole new set of responsibilities. For the international student, this means more than just remembering to set the alarm for early morning classes and having enough clean underwear. The international student must be aware and responsible for their visas or permits, health insurance, international bank accounts and phone bills and much, much more. You are responsible for your well-being at all times, no more so than when you first arrive. You aren’t familiar with your surroundings, you don’t know the people you are thrust into this life with, and you need to make smart decisions. You’ll make some stupid ones along the way, but as long as you learn from them, it will be worth it.
7. THE ART OF FRIEND ACQUISITION
Sometimes it seems that the older you get the harder it becomes to make new friends. Living and studying abroad, however, forces you to meet new people and subsequently, make new friends. Living abroad helps you learn how to read people and soon you might find yourself identifying with people you never would have expected. Studying abroad allows you explore different places as well as different people. Never pass up an opportunity to meet and share ideas with new people, it is a once in a lifetime chance to gain insight and perspective. These experiences are so intense and thus breed intense friendships, it is so much easier to make friends when, despite your differences, you can identify with new people and form friendships that span continents and lifetimes.
8. BE A GOOD TRAVELER
Being a good traveler is more than just being able to fit an entire apartment into two 50 Kg suitcases or finding the cheapest ticket available on the Internet, you need to almost become an entirely different person. A person who can swiftly bypass the crowds at the information desk, always manages get an Emergency Exit seat, and above all else, a good traveler rises above and always maintains a calm tone and disposition in the face of any debacle. Things go wrong all the time. Runways back up, engines die, and the weather is always an unpredictable and uncontrollable force. Remember, you aren’t the only one going through it! I can guarantee you, absolute-money-back-guaranteed, that nothing is ever gained by throwing a temper tantrum. Distressed tears however, those might get you somewhere (like into the Executive Lounge). Anger, resentment, and lashing out, however, will only get you detained by airport security. No matter what the circumstances, maintain grace and decorum, do not take it out on transit employees; they didn’t cancel your connection, they didn’t bump you from your flight. Be polite and thank them for understanding and for their help (even if they don’t offer any), they might be so surprised they may even bump you up to business class. That’s a jagged pill worth swallowing, right?
9. BEING A GOOD PERSON NEVER BACK-FIRES
I can’t think of an instance when an extended helping hand or a kind word has come back to haunt me. That is not to say, however, that there aren’t those who are out to get you. Anywhere you go you will undoubtedly encounter good and bad people in the world because, let’s face it, they’re everywhere. I’d like to think that the good outnumber the bad, and following this theory, I always try to help my fellow traveler. I give directions when I can, offer tips on where to stay or the cheapest way to get to the airport because good deeds always come full circle, eventually. After all, you never know when you might find yourself totally lost and a random passer-by, who speaks perfect English, stops and gives you unsolicited but nonetheless perfect directions and makes your day. Try to make someone else’s.
10. YOU ARE SPECIAL, BUT YOU AREN’T THE FIRST
The opportunity to travel, study, and live abroad is truly something special and there is something even more special about the individual who chooses to do so. You might feel like you are the first person to take the path, to walk down that road, but you aren’t. Others have done the same and have lived to tell about it; after all, those are your best resources while preparing for or assimilating to your new surroundings. Living abroad is a life changing experience, however overwhelming it may get. Take solace in the fact that you aren’t the first and that you won’t be the last. Take it all in, soak it up like a sponge and pass your wisdom on to the next batch of international adventurers. Sometimes how you feel is a choice. You can always choose to laugh and to find the bright side of any situation. The more stories you have to tell, the better, no matter what they might be because trust me, they will all be funny down the road.
Written by: E.J. POTTER