They tell you to have no expectations coming in, but of course you do, and of course they all couldn’t be more wrong. Studying abroad is like a strange lucid dream – when it ends, you begin to wonder what parts were real, or if you just imagined the whole thing.
I studied abroad last spring in Buenos Aires, and it feels like I lived an entire lifetime in 5 months, in some wondrous alternate universe. It’s remained a beautifully raw time of my life, one in which I felt most connected to my life as it danced around me. Even now, almost a year after I boarded the plane for Argentina, the pictures and memories and relationships are still poignant, and transport me to a special mental space.
After a year of distance and reflection, these are my essential tips for studying abroad. Some are vague, some more specific, but all are oh so necessary to embracing the most wild ride of your life.
1. Spend every last dollar in your bank account. This was the best advice I got before leaving, and if not for this advice, I wouldn’t have gone on the weekend trip to Uruguay and had the most romantic night of my life. No matter what, this trip will make you go broke. Just accept that fact before you go and stop stressing. You’re a college student, you’re supposed to be broke anyway, you’ll recover (or be in debt for the rest of your life, LOL).
2. Ask for help and directions often, it’s okay, people are friendlier than you think.
3. Learn the slang- it’s fun and gives you mad street cred with the locals. Speaking of which, make local friends! There’s no better way to see a city than through it’s own eyes.
4. Find one restaurant/cafe/bar and make it your spot- only ever go alone and only ever bring some money, a pen, and a journal.
5. Cross the closest border. Fill that passport with stamps!
6. Listen to lots of music, and make LOTS of new playlists on your ipod/iphone, including but not limited to: 1 for every bus or plane ride (name them after the journey), 1 of all songs in the native language of the country you’re in, 1 for all your new favorite party songs you hear at the bars and clubs, 1 of songs that remind you of home to listen to when you’re homesick, 1 for every time you fall in love, and 1 composed completely of Jackson 5 songs, just because everyone should have this playlist and it’ll come in handy when you wanna strut yo stuff.
7. Kiss someone whose name you don’t even know. Never learn it. Have a one night stand. Learn their first name just for shits and giggles.
8. Thank your parents, often. No doubt they in some way helped make this trip happen, whether they supported you financially or emotionally, or if they didn’t support you at all and forced you to learn the ups and downs of independence.
9. Cry. And then cry some more, I can’t stress it enough. This will be the fastest and wildest 6 months of your life, and you have no real time to process, so just feel your feelings and don’t be afraid to cry throughout.
10. Dance. This is just as if not more important than crying! Dance at clubs, at bars, at the grocery store, on the subway, in the street, just do it!
11. Stay in as many hostels as possible, and when you’re there, talk to everyone you meet. Some of the best stories you will ever hear will come from these mouths.
12. Eat the local delicacies. The weirder the better. I TRIPLE DOG DARE YOU.
13. Try to be a yes person. Safety and comfort are two very different things. Keep yourself safe, but lean into discomfort- you will discover new things about yourself.
14. Pass your classes. If they’re interesting, even better, pay attention and do well. But seriously doe, they know you’re paying a shit ton and the classes are usually wicked easy, just pass!
15. Send people you care about back home postcards! You’d be amazed at the power that a cute little piece of snail mail has to make your loved ones forget that you’ve hardly talked to them in months. A postcard lets them know that even in these hectic times, you really do miss ’em.
16. Read at least one meaningful book. A good book hits you differently from the other side of the world.
17. Go see live music!
18. There will be at least one time when you are alone, hammered, lost, and terrified. It’s going to be okay. Get yourself to the nearest well-lit area, hail the first cab you see, and get your ass home. Once you’re safe, sleep, cry, Skype your best friend, emotionally eat- do whatever it takes to settle yourself down. For me it was sending panicked messages to friends, lots of sleep, and about 6 episodes of Fresh Prince. You’re going to be okay.
19. Do your fair share of the touristy things, like going to the monuments and museums. There’s a reason these things are so famous, and you may find yourself captivated. Worst comes to worst, these classics will give you great ammo for PG rated small talk with your extended family at holiday parties.
20. Get a tattoo. Even if it’s stupid, it’s not stupid because it’ll commemorate this amazing, free time of your life.
21. Celebrate your birthday. Even if it doesn’t happen during your study abroad, pretend it does, you get free stuff!
22. Spend a night under the stars and admire how the constellations look different from over here.
23. Pet the stray dogs. Then wash your hands.
24. Whenever you’re caught breaking a rule, play up the foreign card and pretend you don’t know anything. “Oh, sorry sir, I didn’t know, I’m just a dumb American!”
25. Buy The Book Of Questions and play it with your friends to pass the time on long bus rides or rainy nights. Best 7 bucks you’ll ever spend!
26. Seek out and have a quality conversation with someone who has lived there all their life and is over 60. Ask them their thoughts about politics, the world, today’s youth, and how they city has changed since their childhood.
27. Go swimming in as many bodies of water as you can. (Extra points for skinny dipping.)
28. Tip well. Service people all around the world make crap money.
29. Be prepared to gain a 15 pounds. At least. Ugh. Curse you empanadas and dulce de leche!
30. Let yourself give in to homesickness very once in awhile. Go get that cheeseburger from McDonalds, go to the American bar, watch a movie in English, skype your mom for 3 hours, and don’t feel guilty or like you’re not taking advantage of your time abroad.
31. Come prepared with the three 3s – your 3 best personal anecdotes, your 3 best jokes, and your 3 best would-you-rather questions. These will help to fill any awkward silences you might encounter.
32. Pack a rain jacket and comfy shoes.
33. Keep a blog. This will be the greatest souvenir you bring home with you.
34. Travel alone, even if it’s just a day trip. Part of the reason you studied abroad was to be independent, and nothing will feel more rewarding than solo-navigating your way through buying tickets, traveling, arriving, and enjoying a destination all by yourself.
35. Remember that it’s not better or worse, it’s different.
36. Give a street musician all the money in your pocket. Pick a day when you have some good money on you.
37. Know that some people back home will disappoint you by not putting any effort in to stay in touch with you. Take this as part of that “learning experience” they’re always talking about. You learn just as much about your home while your abroad as you do your host country.
38. Remember how goddamn lucky you are to be studying abroad right now.
39. There’s a difference between alone and lonely. It’s a difficult lesson to learn, but an important one.
40. Live every day with the mantra “my time here is short” and every night with the “I’ll probably never see them again” lack of inhibition.