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So, You Want to Study Abroad…

I’m in Nicaragua y’all!!!

Yupp, I made it to the LAND OF MY PEOPLE! I’ll be here for a semester, studying, researching, and soaking in that Nica lifestyle. After spending a semester in Italy I think I’m a pretty seasoned semester-abroader (just kidding.) But let’s be serious now, before coming I thought a lot about if there were things that I could’ve/would’ve/should’ve done differently in either the selecting process or my time abroad, and I came up with some tips for y’all to help guide your decisions or add to your experiences.

Pre-departure:

  • Consider what kind of experience you want to have. Do you want to be doing research or an internship? Do you feel comfortable enough with the local language to live in a less-touristy part of the country? Do you even speak another language? These are all relevant questions, and they helped guide me to Bologna.
  • Don’t pack too much. Not only for the given reason that you’ll probably buy a lot of things while you’re abroad and they’ll have basic necessities, but what you probably haven’t considered is post traveling with 2 giant suitcases, a carry on, and a purse. Yeah, that flight ticket to Germany seemed so cheap, but that was before you realized that you needed to pay double the price of the ticket to check in one bag! Public transportation? Have fun navigating cobble stone streets to board busses or transfer trains with all your stuff!
  • Read books/watch movies. This is a great way to see your new home in a different light. And it’s a good excuse to both read books and watch movies!
  • You won’t know what to expect. And if you think you know, you have no idea. People ask me all the time, “so…what’ll you be doing in Italy/Nicaragua?” I didn’t know for either of my programs, I just knew where I was gonna be and for how long. How many students will you be with? No idea. When will you find out what internship you have? Great question. What host family will you be staying with? My guess is as good as yours. (I still don’t know my host family so…)
  • That being said, come up with a script. You may have to struggle through it the first 10 times someone asks, but you’ll get it down. Even if you really have no idea, just come up with something generic and vague that will assuage the masses.

While you’re there:

  • Stop telling yourself you have time. You don’t…sorry. I told myself that I was going to have a Bologna tourism day within the first week of arriving and I only took my camera out the last full day I had in the city. I have so few pictures of the city I feel most at home in, not even on my phone! I skipped out on so many day trips because I thought I’d have another weekend, only to find myself boarding a plane back to the states.
  • Don’t be that person who goes to a new country every weekend. I know, it seems tempting to cross off all of those places on your bucket list, and the prices are just so reasonable, but by the end you’ll feel like a stranger in the one place you were supposed to have grown most accustomed to. It’s a beautiful thing to learn the quirks of a new city, wander it’s narrow streets, and develop unique friendships with the locals.
  • Be safe! I’m sure you’ve been told thousands of times, but it’s critical because you don’t want to be that person who leaves the group and gets super lost in a new city with a different language and no phone. More than anything, it’s about being smart and conscious of your surroundings.
  • Take public transportation. Post to follow!
  • Journal, blog, draw. Do whatever it is you gotta do to let out those creative juices and reflect on the day/week.
  • Enjoy “you” time. I was in a group with about 26 other students, so things got pretty cozy. Now, I’m with a group of 6 other students, so things are even cozier! You understand you better than anybody else, so don’t hesitate to take moments away from the group.
  • Reach out to your professors. A lot of people don’t think that study abroad is even school, they see it more as just living abroad. Well, that’s all fine and well but by the end of the semester you’re gonna have to hand in those final papers and take those exams, so you can manage that however you choose. Either way, talk to your professors about restaurant suggestions, events in the city, and cultural tips. My film professor had a wealth of knowledge regarding the Bologna music scene which, I am sad to say, I did not take advantage of! Professionally/academically you can get the hook-up with different organizations in the area too.

So I’m currently on my second semester abroad but I did go back to SF to visit friends and just see the city. The adjustment was much harder than I thought it would be! Even though I was only in my home-college environment for 4 days, here are some time for re-adjusting:

  • Look out for how many times you say “when I was in [insert exotic country here]”. Everyone is gonna ask you how it went, nobody’s gonna wanna really know…except for your mom. And don’t be insulted by this either. First, your friends may be a bit jealous or just feel bad that they can’t connect with you on this level. Second, you’re not gonna get the response you want because nobody really knows about that time with the people, in the place, with the lights…you know? This doesn’t mean you should keep your life abroad a secret, it was a huge part of your growth so you should be proud of it.
  • Transitions don’t need to be so abrupt. Eat the food you used to eat. Take those customary midday coffee breaks everyone used to take. Don’t talk about work at lunch. Even though you may not be living in the community of your past semester, you can always bring a little bit of your new home to your old one. For example, I like to order cappuccinos when I go to coffee shops (but only before 11 am of course!). I’d never had a cappuccino or an espresso in my life before I went to Italy and now it’s a way for me to transport myself back to the good old days!
  • Keep up with your friends! It’s easy to fall out with the people you met abroad, mainly because you are all getting back into the swing of your old lives. But you will need each other, especially in the first weeks back. My group FB and text messages consist of embarrassing moments, sobbing emojis, and weekly high-lows!
  • It’s okay if you feel detached from your old friends. I don’t feel this way, but I have friends who studied abroad with me that feel this way. This is normal and it’s all right! Four months is a long time to be gone, and living in a new environment can teach you a thing or two…or 40. In that time, your friends may have changed as well. Try easing back into the friendship but if you’re both finding that it feels too forced and almost fake just address it and ease back out.
  • Work for that bi-/trilingual status! If you wanna be putting “fluent in Spanish/Italian/Arabic/Portuguese/Xhosa” on your resume, you better work for it! Practice makes perfect and that’s really what kept you proficient when you were abroad, so keep it up by watching movies, finding speaking partners, or doing an online course.
  • Don’t take off your “rose-tinted glasses”. When I travel I put on what my friend Marilyn likes to call “rose-tinted glasses,” which make everything look beautiful and warm. Because of these glasses I feel much more adventurous and easy-going. Remember, just because you’re stateside again doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try that dish you can’t even pronounce or take spontaneous day-trips. Chances are you’re living in an area or a city that thousands of people would LOVE to visit and you may not be taking complete advantage of it. I know I don’t!

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