I was fortunate enough to spend four months of my sophomore year of college on a study abroad program in London, easily some of the best of my life.
I could bore you with an entire novel about what I did, who I saw, and how nothing was the same, but to spare you the melodrama, I’ll sum it up by saying that studying abroad gave me a plethora of opportunities that will impact me for the rest of my life. I chased and lived many of my dreams, crossed off quite a few items on my bucket list, learned a lot about myself and the world, and overall changed for the better.
For anyone planning to study abroad, you should know that you’re about to have some of the best months you’ll ever experience. Seriously.
If I could go back and do it all again, I would – a million times over. Because of my passion for this opportunity, I thought I’d share 10 things I learned during my time abroad that ultimately aided in making it the life-changer that it was. I do this in the hopes I may provide even an ounce of inspiration for your own international journeys.
1. Buy a nice camera.
Seems silly, but it sure is worth it.
Before departing for London, I invested in a DSLR camera, something I’d always contemplated purchasing but ultimately decided against because of the price. The investment was one of the best decisions I could’ve made. More than likely, you’re gonna want to take a ton of pictures while you’re abroad, and having a nice camera will ensure every picture reflects the quality of your experience. The world is a beautiful place; a fancy camera will help you capture that (plus it’s really fun to use).
2. With nice camera in hand, take lots of pictures – especially of the place you’re living.
It may seem weird or excessive at the time, but trust me – you’ll regret it later if you don’t. Looking through the thousands of pictures I took whilst abroad, I made the startling discovery that I really didn’t have many pictures of the place I actually lived. There are a zillion and one from the first few weeks I was there, when I went to every touristy place you could possibly hope to see in London, but as the days melted into months and I settled into the notion of living there, the need to grab my camera every time I left my flat felt less and less pressing.
I realize now that was because you’re more inclined to take pictures of places you’re touring versus places you’re living – but I wish I had more pictures of London all the same. The real London, not what you see on the tourism ads. Make an effort to capture aspects of your everyday life just as much as your weekend excursions – it’s something I really wish I’d done more of.
(That being said, be careful not to live your entire experience behind the lens. Snapchat and Instagram stories are great, but don’t get so obsessed with capturing your experience that you forget to actually live it.)
3. Go out of your comfort zone.
This one’s a bit cliche, but it’s what studying abroad is all about, right? Do something that will challenge you: travel alone, go someplace where you don’t speak a word of the language, try a food that you’d otherwise never imagine eating. Whatever it is, determine what constitutes your comfort zone and embark on a quest to obliterate it.
4. Take advantage of the culture.
Immerse yourself in something iconic to where you are – see a show, take a class on a native dance style, sign up for a cooking course. This is a prime opportunity to get a true sense for a culture completely different to your own, so don’t be afraid to grasp that and run with it.
5. Accept that things will go wrong and just go with it.
Nothing ever occurs 100% as planned when traveling. Things are bound to happen that are unforeseen, undesirable, and, frankly, unavoidable. What I came to realize is that the best way to handle these types of situations is with confidence and ease. Shit happens; if you accept that and choose to take any unexpected change of plans in stride, your experience abroad will be greatly enhanced.
6. Document your experience.
Create a scrapbook. Keep video diaries. Start a blog. However you decide to do it, find a way to document all the places you go, the challenges you face, and the cool things you experience. It’s almost impossible to explain a study abroad experience to someone who wasn’t there, but the documentation you keep will help try.
Additionally, as your time abroad comes to a close, everything you did and all of the amazing moments you relished will start to blur together until the entire experience starts to feel like a far-off dream. The frightening thought that it never even happened at all may cross your mind (it’s certainly crossed mine). If you’ve kept adequate documentation, you’ll possess cold, hard proof that it did, in fact, happen – and it’ll give you a fun excuse to reminisce on the wonderful memories you made.
7. Take the “why the hell not?” approach, but be responsible.
Part of the reason my friends and I had such an amazing experience was because we had the mindset of “why the hell not?”. There were activities we wanted to do and goals we wanted to accomplish and we made them happen.
Studying abroad is the perfect time to take advantage of things you’ve always dreamt of. If you want to go to Paris for the weekend to see Beyonce, do it. If there’s a musical you’ve always wanted to see playing in the West End, buy tickets. Even if it seems ridiculous or impossible, just go for it.
That being said, be responsible with what you do. Don’t spend money you don’t have or plan excursions without budgeting them out first. Take chances and do things you wouldn’t normally splurge on, but be smart about it.
8. Don’t compare your experience to others’.
Everyone’s experiences are different from one another.
Whether it’s the country you’re in, the city, or even part of the city, who you are and how you choose to spend your time (and what you ultimately learn and take from your experience) will differentiate yourself from everyone else you know who’s gone abroad.
Just because one person made a zillion friends from all over the world at their program doesn’t mean that you will, too; that’s okay. Similarly, just because a friend who did your same program only hung around Americans doesn’t mean you won’t meet tons of internationals, nor does it mean that being with Americans the entire time will take away from your experience. Take it all in, embrace it as a purely individual opportunity, and make the experience your own. No one will ever be able to take that away from you.
9. Be selfish.
You’ll never have the opportunity to travel the world with such little responsibility ever again.
Sure, you’re going to school, but the things you’ll learn from the most are those that could never be taught in a classroom. Studying abroad is a time in your life when it’s okay to make it all about you. Do what makes you happy.
10. Enjoy every minute.
Everyone will tell you this, but it’s so, SO important. It’ll go by quicker than you can even imagine, trust me. You’ll never have this type of experience again in your life. Ever. Take the time to pinch yourself every once in a while and appreciate every glorious moment of this invincible, beautiful, world-at-your-fingertips opportunity. It’ll be one of the best choices you ever made.