If you find yourself in a conversation about studying abroad sometime in the near future, you are guaranteed to hear the word “experience” almost as much as you’ll hear the words “legal drinking age.” In fact, the emphasis on living it up often overshadows the other elements of studying abroad. Relatives never mention the outrageous food prices, the disorienting phases of culture shock, or feeling of utter loneliness that kicks in on the first rainy day. They don’t mention a lot of things, actually. For example:
1. You might not make friends right away, and that’s fine.
I’ve never been one to strike up a conversation with the person next to me on the subway or invite a random stranger to philosophize with me at a bookstore. When I left the US, I was determined to break out of my shell like the beautiful butterfly my mother always told me I was. And yet, despite my efforts to initiate small talk, it seemed like everyone was buddying up. Within the first two days, it appeared as though everyone else had exchanged phone numbers and planned outings with their new respective friend groups while I was stuck butting into other people’s conversations and cracking cheesy jokes in an attempt to impress someone. Everyone says making friends abroad is a piece of cake but the truth of the matter is, socializing may not come as easily as one might think. The window of opportunity has not disappeared by the third day of orientation, no matter how much it might seem like it. Join a club! Take a trip! Wander into a bar alone and sing karaoke with a stranger! Not everyone you meet will stay your friend and not all of your friends will last the full 5 months. Don’t let that discourage you from having a good time.
2. You’re not a weenie if you want to stay in one night.
Studying abroad didn’t earn its alternate title, “partying abroad,” for no reason. What else can you expect from 20-year-old college students who have suddenly been granted legal drinking age status? In some cases, staying out all night is not only encouraged, but expected. Don’t be scared to opt for a movie night in bed. That being said, try to avoid staying in every night. You didn’t pay the cash equivalent of your first-born child to watch Friends on repeat. Joey, Chandler, and the laugh track will be there when you get back.
3. You may not travel as much as you wanted to.
It’s easy to fantasize about backpacking across Europe when you’re safely at home with 5,000 dollars in the bank but don’t get ahead of yourself: studying abroad is expensive. Though the inexpensive price tags on many RyanAir intercontinental flights may have you mapping out travel plans, don’t forget the other expenses involved, including transportation to and from the airport, meals, and any form of entertainment you decide to invest in, whether it be drinks at a nightclub or tickets to a 5-mile-long pub crawl in Ireland on Saint Patrick’s Day.
4. It’s the little things that will kill you.
When you move to another country, you expect to pay for certain items upon arrival. Adapters, converters, toiletries, food, etc. But dish soap? Hangers? A towel to put at the foot of your shower to avoid stepping into a self-made Slip-and-Slide? These are the little things that you will forget, the very things that will make your wallet hate you.
5. The first few days do not determine your abroad experience.
Maybe you spent the first week on your new campus with a black eye after falling into a HelloKitty luggage in the airport. Maybe you said something with a little too much sarcasm to your new group of friends and they stopped inviting you to places. Maybe your professor said “do do” in the middle of a lecture and your snickering was a few notches too loud. Whatever the case, what happens during your first week abroad does not determine how the rest of your trip will go. If life were determined by such transitory phases, I’d still be giggling at dirty words and reading inappropriate fan-fiction about The Outsiders with my friends like I did in middle school. (Stay gold, Ponyboy.)
6. Prepare follow up questions or else anticipate awkward conversations.
When you go abroad, you are mentally assigned an unofficial script consisting of four questions that you must follow for at least the first 100 conversations you engage in. One: “Hi, I’m so-and-so. Nice to meet you!” Two: “Where are you from?” Three: “What school do you go to?” Four: “What are you studying?” Once you exhaust this list of questions, you may find yourself twiddling your thumbs and searching the sky for a new topic to discuss. If you want to bypass the awkwardness that follows, make a mental note of other subjects you can explore after you reach this lull. Television shows usually strike up heated conversations, so that would be a good place to start.
Studying abroad can be exciting but also, absolutely terrifying for some, myself included. However, if you prepare yourself ahead of time, it may end up being one of the best experiences of your life. See? There’s that word again.