Smart Girl's Guide to Studying Abroad

October 20, 2013

During my first year of college, if I had been asked whether or not I wanted to study abroad, my answer would have been no. In my second year of college, you probably would have gotten the same answer. By my third year of college, and rather late in my academic career, I realized that I had developed a passion for the Spanish language. As a non-major, the best option for continuing my education was to study abroad. I researched programs, applied, and was accepted to the Valencia program here at UVa. In July of 2013, I took the 7-hour flight to Valencia, Spain.

So, here it is, what I wish I knew before I studied abroad (and a couple other tips!):

It’s okay to feel homesick.

It really is. For me, the sensation came most acutely as homesickness for America. It is difficult to be thrust into a new country, where they speak a different language, eat different foods, and even their toilets don’t work like you are used to. You might be familiar with the term “culture shock,” and I assure you, it can happen to even the most seasoned traveller. Fortunately, we live in the wonderful age of technology, and mom and dad are just a Wi-Fi connection away with helpful apps like Skype. If you feel like your homesickness is hindering your experience, seek out help from your school’s psychologist and focus on bonding with the other students on your trip—you’re all in the same boat!

Don’t ignore your schoolwork.

Since I was only in Spain for a month, our school schedule was rigorous. Just like on grounds, you have to find the balance between work and play. See if your program offers special group trips, and take advantage of them. Visit the museums in the area. Practice your foreign language skill. There are multitudes of ways to do homework that don’t actually feel like work! Above all else, you are studying abroad to learn, and because grades are a reflection of how well you have achieved this goal, you should care about them just as much as you do at home!

Travel

Get to know your host family.

They have welcomed you graciously into their home for an extended period of time—get to know them! My roommate and I would watch Spanish game shows with our host parents during dinner, and would sit for almost an hour after lunch drinking coffee and talking. My host mother and father did not speak any English, so we were forced to communicate in only Spanish. This is where I developed and refined my Spanish-speaking skill. Before I left, several people had told me that the real way to learn a language was total immersion. They were right, and what better way to do that than bonding over the Spanish version of “Password”!

Don’t start a new relationship right before you leave.

This might seem like a no-brainer, but of course, I thought I was different, as people who want to fight the odds generally do. I really liked the guy, and we had been out a few times. I left the country with reassurances of “I’ll be waiting for you!” and thought nothing of the one-month separation and the 6-hour time difference and the Atlantic Ocean that stretched immensely between us. No biggie! …Wrong. He eventually started ignoring my messages, and I spent a few days walking around the city with my iPod in, feeling sad at the world for being so unfair. But then I realized: hello, I’m in SPAIN! This is my time, and no one can take that from me unless I let them. So I gave myself those few days, and said to myself, “that’s all.” I only wish I hadn’t wasted even a little bit of time feeling sad. 

Read, read, read! 

I have often felt that the secret to learning is this: read, look up unfamiliar words, repeat. This applies not only in our own country and language, but also to others. Read maps, travel books, brochures, menus—there is a wealth of knowledge available to you if you seek it out. That is what you are studying abroad to do: to learn, to explore, and to create. Educate yourself and those around you. Your host country will be impressed by your simple desire to understand their culture.

 

A huge part of the study-abroad experience is learning these tips for yourself and maturing in the way you interact with the world! Be brave, be kind, and be yourself. You will cheat yourself out of a life-changing experience if you don’t commit to truly enjoying the trip and appreciating the opportunity you have been given. This is your moment—have fun with it!

By Adelyn Bender.

Image Credit: http://tinyurl.com/knj7qgl

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