Studying abroad is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It is something that not all students can experience while they’re in university, which makes it all the more important to approach this opportunity with wide eyes, a curious mind, and a deep appreciation for the unknown.
These tips are gathered from former students who have studied abroad. They are pieces of wisdom they wish they had heard when they started their study abroad experiences.
1: “Write down everything.” It is so easy for the small moments to pass you by. You’ll be in a state of shock and transition. At first, everything is exciting. Then, it may be overwhelming. It could turn to difficult and potentially frustrating. These are the shifts of the cultural exchange experience. However, if you don’t take time to write down your responses to things, you will forget so many of the small moments that fly by. Take time to describe the coffee that your host parents make. Describe the streets and clothes and music and the daily activities. No moment is too small to record. You may want to write in moments of awe, when you’re on a trip to the Galapagos or Machu Picchu, but it’s also important to remember than when you don’t want to write, when you feel overwhelmed or stressed, those are exactly the moments to pick up a pen. You’ll appreciate it later.
2: “Say yes to (pretty much) everything.” You’re only in this country for a short time. You’re really not going to say yes to trying the chontacuros (fried worms) in the Amazon? Or the pig blood soup? Or the crunchy pork skin? Or guinea pig? In Ecuador, these plates are typical. Your host parents or your friends may offer them to you, or you may have the chance to try them when you’re wandering around. If it’s against your dietary practices, like you’re vegetarian or vegan, that’s obviously understandable. But if the only reason why you don’t want to try something is that it looks gross, just try it anyway. Trust me, you won’t (usually) regret it.
3. “Get to know locals. Seriously.” It is so easy to go into studying abroad with the mindset that you’ll be hanging out with locals, practicing the local language, and becoming part of the city in which you live. But honestly, that’s not always the case. You’re often with friends from other American or European universities who are in your program. You see them for class. You see them after class and at night to go out. It takes courage to strike up conversation with someone, in Spanish, and then transition that interaction into friendship. But if you don’t try, then you won’t get much of the real experience! The next time you’re out at a bar, or watching a concert, or when your host sibling invites you to come hang out, don’t hesitate. Dive in, and you’ll feel like you really got to become a part of the culture when you leave to head home.
4. “Leave some things behind.” When you come back to your home country, you’ll be loaded down with new ponchos, bags, clothes. Endless gifts. It’s ok to leave some things behind. Donate books to the library. Leave some of the clothes with your little host sibling who always loved that one dress or shirt. Give a gift to the family that has been hosting you. Offer to prepare a meal from your country for them. These small moments of generosity help to complete the circle of giving and receiving.
5. “When you get back, invite people over, set up a photo slideshow, and talk about it.” Often, when people go traveling or living in a different country, the act of coming back to a home country can be a shock. Even though you’re excited to see friends and family, there’s this pause. They’ve moved on a little, changed in slight ways, and so have you. Most people will ask you with authentic enthusiasm, “How was Ecuador?!” You’ll say “Great! Amazing! Life-changing!” But then, you may pause. Where do you even start?
A picture is worth a thousand words. Invite friends and family over, set up a slideshow of your best photos and videos, maybe make a typical Ecuadorian dish, and invite them into your experiences. It may seem staged or forced, but you will want to show your loved ones all of these photos. Without you inviting your friends into the world where you’ve been living for the last three months, they won’t really know how to imagine it. They may not know which questions to ask. Honor your experiences and show them to your loved ones. They’ll understand all the better how travel can change a person, and the might feel the spark to travel soon too!