Before I went abroad, I felt a mixture of emotions: anticipation, excitement, nervousness, hope, and fear. As I planned for my semester abroad, I talked to a lot of people who had been in my shoes before. I was given a lot of advice, and walked down memory lane with their experiences. After many conversations before and after my five months spent living in France, here’s what I’ve learned about the study abroad experience:
1. It’s important to manage your expectations.
Before leaving I heard all kinds of things, such as: This is going to be the best time of your life! What a life changing, amazing experience! You are going to do so many crazy, adventurous things! You will meet a handsome French Man and fall in love and get married and have adorable French babies! You are so lucky to be going abroad you are going to love it! You are going to make so many friends from all over the world!
It was hard for me when I first got to France, where I was spending my fall semester of my junior year. I knew I had a wonderful, unique, amazing opportunity ahead of me and I just felt so much pressure for it to be perfect. I used to stress out that I wasn’t having “the best time ever” or doing “the most exciting things ever.” Eventually, I stopped comparing my journey and experience to my friends’ experiences, and learned to go my own way on my own adventure.
2. Your experience abroad is what you make of it.
No one can tell you how to be abroad. It’s something you have to explore for yourself. If you want to have the type of experience where you travel to ten different countries, you need to be the one to do the research, budget, and seek out opportunities to travel. If you want to have the experience where you become immersed in the culture and develop tight knit-friendships, you have to work at meeting people and building your own community abroad.
3. Sometimes you might hate it, and that’s okay.
Studying abroad is a roller coaster of emotions, and somehow, most people only talk about the good feelings. You’re going to feel excited, thrilled, enamored, and drunk on travel. You’ll also feel homesick, stressed, exhausted, lost and alone.
Let yourself have a moment, write it down, Skype your mom who, like mine, might say, “Well it’s only the beginning of October and you have a few months left before you can come home, so you should work with what you have.” Take a walk down an old street or sit in a park and listen to the languages that surround you.
4. Keep a journal.
Whether you keep a blog, a diary, or a notebook, you are going to want a record of what you did, but more importantly, what you felt. Looking at my journal, a lot of my entries were about the foods I ate that day, or new words that I learned. While amusing and fun to reminisce, I wish I had taken some time to reflect in the moment my thoughts of my experiences and not just my excitement. It can be hard to digest or process things in-the-moment and keeping a journal of events helps you take a step back to really reflect and appreciate your experience.
5. It will be a life-changing experience, but perhaps not in the way that you had planned.
Everyone I encountered before I left told me that studying abroad would be life changing. When I first arrived, I was almost perched on my seat waiting for my life to change. That’s not how it works.
From what I’ve learned and experienced, it’s about the whole journey of studying abroad—moving to a new country, immersing yourself in a new language and culture, and figuring everything out on your own, outside of your comfort zone and bubble. I guarantee, that no matter if you go bungee jumping in Switzerland or spend your time abroad eating pain au chocolat and sipping espresso at cafes, you will return from your time away with a new perspective. Not just on the customs, habits, or differences of two countries, but a new perspective on yourself.
I learned that I love the taste of new French words as much as I love the tasted of French Food. I learned that I love traveling on a whim, and it’s not always as scary or as stressful as I thought it would be. I learned to be more flexible, and I learned what true friendship means to me. Most importantly, I learned about the strength that I carry within me, which I never knew that I had, and I’ve had it all along.