Studying abroad – or just spending a gap year living in another country – is an incredible way to help you experience the world and shove you out of your comfort zone. I know, because I moved from my small-town college in Illinois to Dublin, Ireland for the spring semester, and I’ve never been more uncomfortable for a longer amount of time. And I absolutely love it. Being “uncomfortable” doesn’t mean I’m not open to new things, or that I’m hyper-nervous all the time, it only means I’m not always sure what to expect. Even though there’s an overwhelming amount of things to take in – on every street, in every restaurant, museum, and shop – I can’t recommend studying abroad highly enough. If you’re able to make it happen, go.
It’s no small decision, though, so I made this list of things that helped me personally while I was deciding to go abroad. There’s so much to consider – but always take your time, and, in the long run, do what’s right for you.
This one wasn’t a big problem for me personally, mainly because I didn’t have to learn a new language to come here, and the customs of Ireland aren’t too different from those of the United States. To be honest, the most adjusting I’ve had to do on this front was to the Irish accents – my first few weeks it sometimes did seem like a different language. The cultural factor will vary by country, of course, and I recommend really doing your research before you select a place to study. A few more points to consider:
- The language – do you know it well enough to communicate? Are you willing to commit to immersing yourself in a completely different language for (potentially) a long time?
- The cultural customs – how do they differ from what you’re used to?
- What is considered rude here? What does polite behavior look like?
- Do they have different views about how men and women should act? What about young people and adults? Will you be comfortable with adhering to those roles for your time abroad?
- What’s the weather like there? (This one sounds simple, but weather can have a big effect on your moods, and you’ll need to be prepared for that, as well, especially if it’s not a climate you’re used to.)
I’m lucky enough to go to a university that really encourages study abroad, and so has well-established partner programmes in other countries for students to choose from. Because of that, all my accommodations – where I’ll live, eat, take classes, etc. – are still taken care of through the university. Or, you could be staying with a host family, which is also a great way to immerse yourself in your host country’s culture. If not, though, you’ll need to look into finding your own lodging. Some pointers:
- Shop around! Look for something that’s affordable as well as in a good location (near where you’ll take class, near a grocery store, that kind of thing).
- How will you feed yourself? (This one’s probably the most important to me!) Does the place you’re staying have a kitchen/grocery store/plenty of restaurants nearby?
- Does it have laundry, bathtub/shower facilities, etc.?
I’ve never lived in a city before, so coming to Dublin was a shock in a lot of ways, and one of those ways was public transportation. Bottom line: it’s amazing. I love public buses. They’re just so convenient (especially given Dublin weather). Dublin is also a great walking city, so everything I need isn’t too far away. Think about:
- What form of transportation will suit you best?
- Can you easily access that? Is there a bus or train stop nearby, or a bike rental shop? (Or, make sure you have good shoes!)
- Finally, is there a student discount card you can get if you need to commute? (There usually is—find out about it, they can save you lots.)
Money had to come up eventually, sadly. Living in another country can be expensive, for a number of reasons, including things like the exchange rate, or different rates for products you’re used to, or more expenses for things you don’t need normally, like transportation or food and travel. And yes, you will make mistakes when you’re in a new country; it happens, you’ll accidently buy something way, way too expensive, and you’ll laugh and move on. On money:
- Does your home school provide any aid for you to go abroad? Are there any scholarships or grants available for study abroad students?
- What’s the currency of the country you’re going to? What’s the exchange rate like?
- Will you have enough money to live there for the amount of time you need? (This one sounds obvious, but it helped me to go through month-by-month and roughly estimate what I would need, what it would cost, and if I had enough, with a little left over for souvenirs, or other travel.)
Before you go, there’s likely a lot of logistical stuff that you just have to get done. A brief list of things to check up on:
- Get your passport, and have copies made. Leave one at home with your parents, keep one in your study abroad residence, and carry one with you, but separate from your passport.
- Also make copies of your credit cards, front and back, and ID cards, in case these get lost or stolen.
- Make sure you’re up on all your shots and have a doctor’s note for any prescription drugs you need to take with you.
- Your university will probably also have a ton of paperwork, depending, but I had to deal with stuff like insurance, make sure that the classes I was taking in Dublin would transfer credits back to my school, and I applied for a couple of different grants and scholarships to help me out.
They say studying abroad is an emotional roller coaster, and I’ve found that to be pretty accurate. There are times when I miss home, but there are also times that I never want to leave Dublin; there are times when I’m really lonely, and wish everything were as easy as it is back at my small school, and then there are times that I love the challenge and excitement of meeting new people in a big city. The emotions hit some people harder than others, and some people not at all; just know yourself and your mental health well enough to know if you’ll be willing or able to handle some emotional stress. And remember, there will be good days and bad days.
- How do you handle stress, or express your emotions? Will you be able to do that abroad, too?
- Similarly, how do you cheer yourself up? Can you do that in your new country, too?
Don’t forget what you’re here for: studying. Or, “studying,” if that’s what you prefer. It’s up to you what level of academic work you’re going in for, so you should make sure you know what you want, and then, if you can, make sure your programme is compatible with your goals. Ask yourself things like:
- Do the classes actually interest you? Would they be helpful to you in your field of study?
- How are things graded, or tested? Are you comfortable with the teaching methods of your country?
- Are there other resources you could use – local school or organizations – to help you learn more about the culture, if that’s what interests you more?
- What about internships, or volunteer work? Do those interest you? Are there opportunities abroad? (I bet there are!)
To be honest, I sort of lied in that last part up there. I said you should make sure you know what you want, and that’s not true: you really don’t have to know what you’re looking for when you study abroad. Or, you might have an idea of what you’re looking for, and find something completely different. Both ways are fine.
Everyone will tell you, too, that you’ll be a completely different person when you come back, but I don’t think that has to be true, either. Studying abroad doesn’t have to change you as a person, but it will change your life. And so, I urge you, if you can, however you can, get comfortable with your discomfort, book a flight to anywhere, and prepare to be amazed.