Guys, I am finally qualified to write about the study abroad experience! I have officially spent six months in a foreign country and come back to tell the tale (which you can check out along with some very personal thoughts on the matter over in the Tufts Admissions Blog). So after the time, travels, friends, and experiences, I finally have something generalizable to say! It all comes down to the same things I wrote about when I debunked Spanish myths: people will tell you things that are not all true about the abroad experience and you have to make sense of the mess. Except this time, it’s all about that pre-departure advice that’s coming at you from anyone and everyone. Here are two I personally encountered that I wish I’d been better informed about:
Make a point of only hanging out with the natives!
Before going to Madrid, I made a pact with a friend about making friends with the locals and ditching the rest of the people in our respective study abroad programs. Later, I explained that making friends with natives can be extremely difficult because of their views on Americans, your short stay in the country, and other such factors. But that’s not why I’m not all for this piece of advice. I think you should hang out with whoever you want. Why? Because you need an immediate support system that gets you. People you won’t have to explain what things in America are like because they know and love (or dislike) the states as much as you do. How much you need this support will vary–I’m not saying make best friends with people in your program or even integrate into program culture (program culture is a thing, you’ll see!)–I’m saying make sure you have someone you can go out with or even just speak English to. It’ll feel comfortable and nice at times when you’ll need it, but try not to get too comfortable: remember you can hang out with American kids for the rest of your life back home you, but you’ll only be able to live with and learn from native kids for this short period of time. It’s all about finding a balance between the familiar in order to create a support system to use while exploring a new culture and making new friends.
Take advantage of the travel!
I remember my grandma whipped out her calendar and wrote down the exact number of weekends I had in Madrid and told me I had to be out of the city every single one of them. As soon as we got to Spain, the kids in my program went on a travel-planning frenzy and two weeks later I was in Portugal for the weekend. No joke. People started traveling so much that I didn’t see kids from the program on the weekends for months–I was personally away from Madrid every weekend in a two month period! Though I don’t regret my back to back trips to Paris, Italy, Barcelona, Sevilla, and London, I wish I had been wiser about the planning. I wish I would have had in mind that there’s no way I’m not going back to Europe and that with only a five months abroad I was bound to not get to every city I wanted to see (and I didn’t). And though at times it feels like I really didn’t travel all that much, I look back on all the plans I had to cancel with my Spanish friends, all the developments I missed in my program culture (this group was like “All My Children,” just as dramatic and missing a week of drama felt like missing a year!), and all of the places I didn’t get to see in my beloved Madrid, I also feel like I was never there!
I’m sure you’ve figured out the theme of this post: the abruptness of the abroad experience. Time FLIES when you’re away! Yeah, you’ve probably already heard that but trust me it won’t hit you ’till you’re sitting back home entertaining the idea that maybe it never happened. So since you’re just starting, know this: you have five to ten short months to make new friends, travel the world, and change your life as much as you want to. Be sure to never take a second for granted, take it all in, and use your precious time wisely!