6 Things You Should Know Before Studying Abroad

I have spent two years of my life studying abroad in two different countries. While I feel that studying abroad is an invaluable experience—an opportunity to experience other cultures and learn many things—there are some aspects of studying abroad that I feel aren’t often highlighted or discussed. Here are six important things to consider in order to make the most of your study abroad experience.

1. Studying abroad can be a difficult adjustment for some

While there are a variety of factors which can influence one’s experience studying abroad, in my opinion, a good portion of it ultimately comes down to an individual’s personality. Study abroad programs can’t dictate who they think can and can’t study abroad based purely on one’s personality, and most of them likely won’t try to dissuade individual students from studying abroad because—well, money. It’s also hard to assess beforehand how individuals will react, handle, or cope with being in a situation like studying abroad until they do it.

While many study abroad programs, universities, and advisors like to claim that studying abroad is for “anyone,” the truth is that it’s really not.

And that’s not to say it’s any individual person’s fault, per se, it just happens to be the case that some people are better at adapting to change than others. Some people don’t get stressed out as easily as others, or are able to learn the language and adjust to the culture quicker than others, or go with the flow more than others. Some people don’t get as homesick as others, or don’t get hung up on things as much as others, or upset/depressed as easily as others.

These personality traits and ability (or inability) to cope with major changes and manage negative or difficult experiences can contribute to the overall quality of one’s experience while they are abroad. And while that isn’t to say that people who are bad at adjusting or coping shouldn’t study abroad—especially if it’s something they want to do—it’s important to be it’s important to keep in mind that living abroad is different for everyone. Not everyone goes through the same challenges or difficulties while living abroad. 

2. You may encounter weird stereotypes and strong opinions about your country

Stereotypes are abundant and shape our perceptions of other people and countries so much more than we consciously realize. Part of the importance of studying abroad is that the experience can help shed some light on your own cultural biases and stereotypes as well as the stereotypes and perceptions others have of you and your country.

However, despite the cautionary advice given by many exchange programs during orientation about being open-minded and nonjudgmental, and blah, blah, blah, there are still a fair amount of exchange students who go abroad without checking their own biases, prejudices, and stereotypes at the airport, and that can create a lot of uncomfortable and awkward situations.

I think it’s fair to say that nobody  likes to be lectured by a foreigner about what’s true or untrue about their own country and culture.

Yet, there are still so many people who like telling the locals or other exchange students what their countries are “actually” like. And it’s often the case that they do so without having first-hand knowledge about those countries or realizing that many of their opinions are stereotypical and aren’t always based in fact.

As an American studying abroad, I have experienced this a lot—both from the locals of the host countries I have lived in as well as from other exchange students. Specifically, I have had many Europeans try to “Euro-splain” America and American culture to me and other Americans abroad before, acting like they know more about us and our culture than we do.

Likewise, I have also witnessed and heard stories of American exchange students pretending to be experts on countries they’ve never, or barely, been to before and couldn’t possibly understand better than those who are from those countries.

It’s easy to be on either side of these kinds of situations. Everyone who goes abroad is confronted by ignorance and stereotypes about their own countries and culture, this is unfortunately common. But it’s also easy to mistake things you’ve heard or read or absorbed over time about other countries and think of it as fact, when it may really just be a stereotype, myth, or something that has become completely skewed in one way or another.

3. It’s not always easy to make friends with the locals

The first time I studied abroad (in Germany), I was determined to make friends with the locals. This, however, proved to be a surprisingly daunting task. Part of the curse of being a foreigner in another country is that, unfortunately, most of the locals usually aren’t that interested in hanging out with or befriending someone from a different country—especially if they’re only there temporarily and they don’t speak the language very well.

If you need a visual in mind, think of the number of international students you and your peers have befriended. Think of how you generally view people from other countries who try to come up and talk to you—especially those who are non-native English-speakers. That’s more or less how people will view you if you go live abroad in another country, especially a non-English speaking country.

If you think about it that way, you realize how foolish it is to assume that the people you will meet while you’re abroad will automatically think you’re “cool” and want to hang out with you simply because you’re foreign.

While that does happen for people in some cases, oftentimes the opposite is true. That isn’t to say that it’s “impossible” to make friends with the locals while you’re living abroad—it certainly is  possible, but it’s not something that will happen automatically. Good, solid friendships usually take several months or even years to form, which is something that’s hard to accomplish within just a few months or even a year of studying abroad, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

You really  have to put yourself out there, though, and try to participate in as many classes, activities, events, etc. as you can while you’re abroad. You’ll also need to find the courage to approach random people and start up conversation as well as put in the effort to initiate hanging out or going places with others—even if you have to ask the same people two, three, four-plus times before finally getting a “yes” from someone.

4. You won’t necessarily become fluent in a foreign language or culturally competent just from being abroad—you actually need to practice and interact with the locals

One of the common misconceptions about studying abroad is that you will become fluent in your host country’s language or culturally competent simply from just being  there. As if your brain will somehow absorb the local language and culture through osmosis. This, however, couldn’t be further from the truth.

While living in another country does  provide many more opportunities to speak a foreign language and learn about other cultures, as opposed to simply staying in your home country, being a passive observer while you’re abroad isn’t going to help you learn anything. Despite what many people may think, it’s entirely possible to live in another country for months, or even years, and never learn how to speak the language  of that country or become familiarized with the local customs and culture. In fact, it happens all the time.

One of the main reasons is because foreign birds of a feather like to flock together. In other words, more times than not, a lot of people living abroad end up forming their own foreign cohorts with other exchange students and don’t actually interact much with the locals.

This is actually very easy to do since  many exchange students feel a certain kinship with one another and easily bond over being outsiders in a country where oftentimes they don’t speak the language very well and don’t understand the local customs, mannerisms, and expectations.

This is one of the major pitfalls of living abroad, and it can only be overcome by trying to put yourself in situations where you have to  interact with the locals, or where you have to  use a foreign language—only then will your language skills and your understanding of the culture improve.

Finding opportunities to do so, though, can be surprisingly difficult, even in situations where you’re surrounded by the local population of your host country. Living with a host family can be a good way to ensure that you will have regular and consistent exposure to your host country’s language and culture, though it can also come with its own challenges.

You can also try enrolling in language classes, joining a club, participating in language exchange programs, attending local or school-related events, or simply going to popular hangout spots. These types of activities will increase your chances of meeting and interacting with the locals and having opportunities to practice your language skills.

5. If you’re from an English-speaking country, chances are people are going to want to practice their English with you

Trying to learn a foreign language as a native English speaker is like fighting an uphill battle when you live abroad—it isn’t impossible, but it’s certainly difficult. While English being the universal language definitely has its upsides when you’re traveling and living abroad, it can also have its drawbacks, especially when it comes to trying to learn a foreign language and assimilate in another country.

The prevalence of English signs, menus, instructions, brochures, maps, and speakers can be really helpful if you happen to not speak the local language. However, it can quickly become annoying for native English speakers who actually can  speak the local language and want to improve their language skills, but are constantly surrounded by people who are eager to try out their English on them.

There are very few things that are as frustrating as having the cashier, bartender, club bouncer, waiter/waitress, airport staff, etc. you’re interacting with take one look at you or your ID and immediately start sputtering out any and all English words and phrases they know despite your genuine attempts at trying to converse with them in their own language.

The same can be said for most of your local classmates, language exchange partners, fellow exchange students, and peers, who, upon finding out that you’re from an English speaking country, often decide that their need to practice or show off their English skills trumps any need or interest you may have in improving your language skills, and, as a result, sometimes even refuse to speak to you in any language but  English.

This means that native English speakers who want to improve their language abilities really  need to put their foot down and stick to their guns. The only way to ensure that you will be able to practice speaking a foreign language is if you are even more persistent  than the people who want to speak to you in English. You also have to avoid giving in to the temptation of speaking English in situations where you very well could be practicing your foreign language skills.

6. Too many exchange students stay in their rooms and don’t make the best of their experiences

I think it’s fair to say that many exchange students have been guilty of spending more time in their rooms skyping and messaging their friends and family back home than they probably should at some point during their exchange abroad.

However, I’m surprised at how prevalent it is for many exchange students to forego opportunities to go out and socialize in favor of staying in their rooms watching Netflix or prioritizing skype sessions with friends and family back home.

Studying abroad can be really stressful, anxiety-inducing, and mentally and physically draining, so there’s a great temptation to relax and do your own thing, or vent to people back home, especially if you don’t really have many people you can talk to or hangout with in your host country. However, this can easily become a downward spiral for many students that can result in them not really taking advantage of their time abroad—not traveling or exploring as much as they could have, not making many or any friends while they’re abroad, not improving their language skills or learning about their host country, and not really having that much fun—which is what most students hope to do when they’re abroad.

The best advice I can give for this is to be self-aware of how much time you’re spending by yourself and/or in your room doing escapist activities like watching videos or shows online, or messaging/skyping people you know back home, and to try and push yourself to go out and do something with other people at least once a week. That way, you can better ensure yourself that you aren’t going to regret the way you spent your time while you’re abroad and make sure you are taking advantage of some of the opportunities you have.

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I am a recent graduate from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities with a B.A. in Global Studies and minors in German and Asian Languages and Literatures (Japanese). I have two years of experience studying abroad in Germany and Japan, and am proficient in both German and Japanese. My interests are reading, writing, traveling, languages, politics, and following current events.

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6 Things You Should Know Before Studying Abroad

I have spent two years of my life studying abroad in two different countries. While I feel that studying abroad is an invaluable experience—an opportunity to experience other cultures and learn many things—there are some aspects of studying abroad that I feel aren’t often highlighted or discussed. Here are six important things to consider in order to make the most of your study abroad experience.

1. Studying abroad can be a difficult adjustment for some

While there are a variety of factors which can influence one’s experience studying abroad, in my opinion, a good portion of it ultimately comes down to an individual’s personality. Study abroad programs can’t dictate who they think can and can’t study abroad based purely on one’s personality, and most of them likely won’t try to dissuade individual students from studying abroad because—well, money. It’s also hard to assess beforehand how individuals will react, handle, or cope with being in a situation like studying abroad until they do it.

While many study abroad programs, universities, and advisors like to claim that studying abroad is for “anyone,” the truth is that it’s really not.

And that’s not to say it’s any individual person’s fault, per se, it just happens to be the case that some people are better at adapting to change than others. Some people don’t get stressed out as easily as others, or are able to learn the language and adjust to the culture quicker than others, or go with the flow more than others. Some people don’t get as homesick as others, or don’t get hung up on things as much as others, or upset/depressed as easily as others.

These personality traits and ability (or inability) to cope with major changes and manage negative or difficult experiences can contribute to the overall quality of one’s experience while they are abroad. And while that isn’t to say that people who are bad at adjusting or coping shouldn’t study abroad—especially if it’s something they want to do—it’s important to be it’s important to keep in mind that living abroad is different for everyone. Not everyone goes through the same challenges or difficulties while living abroad. 

2. You may encounter weird stereotypes and strong opinions about your country

Stereotypes are abundant and shape our perceptions of other people and countries so much more than we consciously realize. Part of the importance of studying abroad is that the experience can help shed some light on your own cultural biases and stereotypes as well as the stereotypes and perceptions others have of you and your country.

However, despite the cautionary advice given by many exchange programs during orientation about being open-minded and nonjudgmental, and blah, blah, blah, there are still a fair amount of exchange students who go abroad without checking their own biases, prejudices, and stereotypes at the airport, and that can create a lot of uncomfortable and awkward situations.

I think it’s fair to say that nobody  likes to be lectured by a foreigner about what’s true or untrue about their own country and culture.

Yet, there are still so many people who like telling the locals or other exchange students what their countries are “actually” like. And it’s often the case that they do so without having first-hand knowledge about those countries or realizing that many of their opinions are stereotypical and aren’t always based in fact.

As an American studying abroad, I have experienced this a lot—both from the locals of the host countries I have lived in as well as from other exchange students. Specifically, I have had many Europeans try to “Euro-splain” America and American culture to me and other Americans abroad before, acting like they know more about us and our culture than we do.

Likewise, I have also witnessed and heard stories of American exchange students pretending to be experts on countries they’ve never, or barely, been to before and couldn’t possibly understand better than those who are from those countries.

It’s easy to be on either side of these kinds of situations. Everyone who goes abroad is confronted by ignorance and stereotypes about their own countries and culture, this is unfortunately common. But it’s also easy to mistake things you’ve heard or read or absorbed over time about other countries and think of it as fact, when it may really just be a stereotype, myth, or something that has become completely skewed in one way or another.

3. It’s not always easy to make friends with the locals

The first time I studied abroad (in Germany), I was determined to make friends with the locals. This, however, proved to be a surprisingly daunting task. Part of the curse of being a foreigner in another country is that, unfortunately, most of the locals usually aren’t that interested in hanging out with or befriending someone from a different country—especially if they’re only there temporarily and they don’t speak the language very well.

If you need a visual in mind, think of the number of international students you and your peers have befriended. Think of how you generally view people from other countries who try to come up and talk to you—especially those who are non-native English-speakers. That’s more or less how people will view you if you go live abroad in another country, especially a non-English speaking country.

If you think about it that way, you realize how foolish it is to assume that the people you will meet while you’re abroad will automatically think you’re “cool” and want to hang out with you simply because you’re foreign.

While that does happen for people in some cases, oftentimes the opposite is true. That isn’t to say that it’s “impossible” to make friends with the locals while you’re living abroad—it certainly is  possible, but it’s not something that will happen automatically. Good, solid friendships usually take several months or even years to form, which is something that’s hard to accomplish within just a few months or even a year of studying abroad, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

You really  have to put yourself out there, though, and try to participate in as many classes, activities, events, etc. as you can while you’re abroad. You’ll also need to find the courage to approach random people and start up conversation as well as put in the effort to initiate hanging out or going places with others—even if you have to ask the same people two, three, four-plus times before finally getting a “yes” from someone.

4. You won’t necessarily become fluent in a foreign language or culturally competent just from being abroad—you actually need to practice and interact with the locals

One of the common misconceptions about studying abroad is that you will become fluent in your host country’s language or culturally competent simply from just being  there. As if your brain will somehow absorb the local language and culture through osmosis. This, however, couldn’t be further from the truth.

While living in another country does  provide many more opportunities to speak a foreign language and learn about other cultures, as opposed to simply staying in your home country, being a passive observer while you’re abroad isn’t going to help you learn anything. Despite what many people may think, it’s entirely possible to live in another country for months, or even years, and never learn how to speak the language  of that country or become familiarized with the local customs and culture. In fact, it happens all the time.

One of the main reasons is because foreign birds of a feather like to flock together. In other words, more times than not, a lot of people living abroad end up forming their own foreign cohorts with other exchange students and don’t actually interact much with the locals.

This is actually very easy to do since  many exchange students feel a certain kinship with one another and easily bond over being outsiders in a country where oftentimes they don’t speak the language very well and don’t understand the local customs, mannerisms, and expectations.

This is one of the major pitfalls of living abroad, and it can only be overcome by trying to put yourself in situations where you have to  interact with the locals, or where you have to  use a foreign language—only then will your language skills and your understanding of the culture improve.

Finding opportunities to do so, though, can be surprisingly difficult, even in situations where you’re surrounded by the local population of your host country. Living with a host family can be a good way to ensure that you will have regular and consistent exposure to your host country’s language and culture, though it can also come with its own challenges.

You can also try enrolling in language classes, joining a club, participating in language exchange programs, attending local or school-related events, or simply going to popular hangout spots. These types of activities will increase your chances of meeting and interacting with the locals and having opportunities to practice your language skills.

5. If you’re from an English-speaking country, chances are people are going to want to practice their English with you

Trying to learn a foreign language as a native English speaker is like fighting an uphill battle when you live abroad—it isn’t impossible, but it’s certainly difficult. While English being the universal language definitely has its upsides when you’re traveling and living abroad, it can also have its drawbacks, especially when it comes to trying to learn a foreign language and assimilate in another country.

The prevalence of English signs, menus, instructions, brochures, maps, and speakers can be really helpful if you happen to not speak the local language. However, it can quickly become annoying for native English speakers who actually can  speak the local language and want to improve their language skills, but are constantly surrounded by people who are eager to try out their English on them.

There are very few things that are as frustrating as having the cashier, bartender, club bouncer, waiter/waitress, airport staff, etc. you’re interacting with take one look at you or your ID and immediately start sputtering out any and all English words and phrases they know despite your genuine attempts at trying to converse with them in their own language.

The same can be said for most of your local classmates, language exchange partners, fellow exchange students, and peers, who, upon finding out that you’re from an English speaking country, often decide that their need to practice or show off their English skills trumps any need or interest you may have in improving your language skills, and, as a result, sometimes even refuse to speak to you in any language but  English.

This means that native English speakers who want to improve their language abilities really  need to put their foot down and stick to their guns. The only way to ensure that you will be able to practice speaking a foreign language is if you are even more persistent  than the people who want to speak to you in English. You also have to avoid giving in to the temptation of speaking English in situations where you very well could be practicing your foreign language skills.

6. Too many exchange students stay in their rooms and don’t make the best of their experiences

I think it’s fair to say that many exchange students have been guilty of spending more time in their rooms skyping and messaging their friends and family back home than they probably should at some point during their exchange abroad.

However, I’m surprised at how prevalent it is for many exchange students to forego opportunities to go out and socialize in favor of staying in their rooms watching Netflix or prioritizing skype sessions with friends and family back home.

Studying abroad can be really stressful, anxiety-inducing, and mentally and physically draining, so there’s a great temptation to relax and do your own thing, or vent to people back home, especially if you don’t really have many people you can talk to or hangout with in your host country. However, this can easily become a downward spiral for many students that can result in them not really taking advantage of their time abroad—not traveling or exploring as much as they could have, not making many or any friends while they’re abroad, not improving their language skills or learning about their host country, and not really having that much fun—which is what most students hope to do when they’re abroad.

The best advice I can give for this is to be self-aware of how much time you’re spending by yourself and/or in your room doing escapist activities like watching videos or shows online, or messaging/skyping people you know back home, and to try and push yourself to go out and do something with other people at least once a week. That way, you can better ensure yourself that you aren’t going to regret the way you spent your time while you’re abroad and make sure you are taking advantage of some of the opportunities you have.

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