So You Think You're Ready to Study Abroad: 5 Tips from an "Expert"


Hiking in Norway (all photos are mine)


There are many articles out there advertising tips for students studying abroad. I look through them often (I like lists) and I usually find them somewhat unhelpful. The reality is that every study abroad situation is different. I’ve studied abroad three times and each has been unique. I’ve stayed in dorms with a meal plan and home stays where I’m part of the family. I’ve been gone for anywhere from 3 weeks to 4 months. One of my programs was through the U, one was affiliated but through a non-profit, and the third was completely unaffiliated, and each had their own vibe. One of my programs was filled with a majority of students who were not from the U.S., the other two were mostly U.S. students from the U or elsewhere around the country. Some of them have been well organized, others have not.

I like to think that from my (as extensive as it gets for undergrad) experience I’m something of a study abroad “expert”, so I’ve compiled my own list with a handful of things that are worth considering once you’ve officially been accepted and it’s time to pack up:


1.     Don’t just Google “what is _______ like in summer time”, ask someone who’s been there.


The first time I studied abroad, I Googled “What is the weather in Oslo (Norway) in summer” and all of the sites I found said that Oslo summer is the same as Minnesota summer. Well I’m not sure in what universe the Minnesota they were talking about exists. I packed only shorts and sandals and arrived to overcast skies, rain, and 60 degree temps. Within a week I had blown part of my spending money buying some long pants, closed toe shoes, and an umbrella. When I went home, everyone I knew who had been to Norway laughed at my mistake. Sometimes Google doesn’t know everything.


2.     Pack smart (no matter how long the trip is, you don’t need 3 suitcases).


I studied in Mexico for one month and all of my luggage fit in one carry on suitcase and a tote. Not only did this make flying approximately one million times easier, it also reduced packing and unpacking time to virtually nothing. Any time you are traveling longer than a week or two, you are going to (a) have access to laundry services or a laundromat, and (b) really want to do your laundry (no one has a month worth of clean underwear). That means you don’t need a lot of clothes - especially for a program where you know that most of your time will be spent in class or sightseeing.

However, I learned my lesson from Norway and I made sure to pack at least one of every type of clothing item I could possibly need: one set of running shoes and athletic clothes for any hiking, one dress, a pair of long pants, a sweatshirt, and a light jacket on top of the regular shorts/bikini/sandals attire most people pack for Mexico. And I was glad I did - I used every single thing I packed.


Standing in front of a mosque in Gibraltar


3.     Go on every free tour/day trip/weekend excursion your program offers.


Many study abroad programs have built in activities. On the three study abroads I have been on these have ranged from museum tours, day trips to nearby cities, weekend trips, hiking trips, palace visits, walking tours, food and wine tastings, and more. These activities are free because you have already paid for them by paying your study abroad fees and tuition, so take advantage of them! It may seem at the time that you could just visit the city or museum on your own in the future, without having to stick with a group, but chances are you won’t. Also, traveling with whatever expert is arranged by the program gives you the chance to learn a lot more about each place than you would if you just walked through on your own. In Spain all of these tours and trips were also conducted completely in Spanish and they were a great opportunity to improve my language skills outside of class.

A friend of mine from my study abroad in Norway still mentions to this day (almost 4 years later) how much he regrets not attending a hiking trip because he wanted a few more hours to sleep off a hangover. It’s not worth missing a cool free trip that you don’t have to organize - you can sleep on the bus.


4.     If you’re not a “planner”, make a friend who is.


In many aspects of my life, I am extremely organized. However, I hate planning trips (hence the appeal of pre-planned trips in tip #3). I don’t like to read guidebooks or search trip websites. If left to my own devices I would just find a cheap hostel, whatever flight is most convenient, and try to wing it once I’m there. This strategy is highly ineffective for many reasons, not least of which being that you don’t want to find out the hard way the maximum baggage size on Ryanair.

My longest study abroad was in Spain (4 months) and therefore it was the study abroad with the most independent travel. I quickly made friends who loved to plan trips down to the most tiny details, a trait I didn’t realize they possessed at first but came to greatly appreciate later. Because of them, I saw more in a weekend than most people see in a week in the cities we visited. In Barcelona, they had mapped out exactly how to walk from location to location in order to pass the greatest number of Gaudi structures and other landmarks.

Most impressive of all was the trip to Paris. They did extensive research and found a beautiful apartment in the heart of the city that was cheaper (and more private) than a hostel. In 48 hours we were able to: visit the palace of Versailles, see Sacre Coeur at sunrise, see the Moulin Rouge, visit the Louvre for free (and at a time when there was literally no one there), visit the Musee D’Orsay (also for free), both lock bridges, a beautiful cemetery, and the Notre Dame, go up the Eiffel Tower, pass through several famous neighborhoods, shop along the Champs Elysee to reach the Arc de Triomphe at sunset, eat a three-course French meal, croque monsieur, crepes, and chocolate-filled croissants, and pass some famous subway entrance sculptures I now know about, among other things, before taking a long train ride to a weird airport outside of the city that had the cheapest flight home. Not only did we cram more into 48 hours than I thought possible, they had also put our itinerary in order such that we did the minimum amount of walking possible in order to reach the maximum number of destinations. It never felt rushed and we even had free time to duck into little shops or parks or restaurants along the way. I have no idea how they pulled it off.

Lesson: if you cannot plan well yourself (and I can’t), make friends who can.


Soccer game in Sevilla, Spain


And finally,


5.     Learn how to say basic first aid words in the language of the country you’re studying in, and have a plan for medical emergencies.


I know that most people go to study abroad because they already have some level of fluency in the language of the country they are studying in. However, we also go abroad to get better at those languages. By the time I made it to Spain, I could get along in Spanish well enough on my own. In Mexico, however, I had only completed through Spanish 1004 and I didn’t have a great command of the language. On that trip I ended up having to go to the pharmacy several times. First, I cut myself badly and it ended up getting infected. As it turns out, Google Translate isn’t great at translating the words for “bandaid” and “antibacterial cream”. After a lot of broken Spanish and pointing, I ended up receiving an ace bandage wrap and a cream that I could only cross my fingers was antibacterial.

Blunders like that in retrospect are a bit funny. However, another thing that happened was not: I ended up getting seriously ill with something completely unrelated to my stay in Mexico. It was a condition that should have been treated right away. I was too scared to use my broken Spanish to ask any questions for fear of being misunderstood, so I had my boyfriend call a nurse hotline while I was on Skype who told me that the U.S. catalogues hospitals in other countries that provide good, safe care to their patients. She also told me that there were none anywhere near me. I suffered with it for three weeks until I made it back home, at which point I immediately had to go to an emergency room. If you’re going to be studying abroad in a country where health care coverage can be spotty, make a plan before you leave the country about how you will deal with any problems that arise.

Study abroad is one of the best things that you can possibly do in your undergraduate career. And I am living proof that you don’t have to settle for just one study abroad in four years. So find a program that works for you - don’t feel limited by the University-run programs (Plug for the better of my two Spanish-language experiences: check out programs run by CIEE around the world. They pride themselves in great homestays and provide lots of trips and activities with the cost of tuition.). Then get out there with your completely-inappropriate-for-Norway-in-summer attire and make your own mistakes. 

- Claire Atmore