So many times during my semester in Peru, my other intercambio friends and I would comment on how quickly the semester was flying by, and how much things have changed since we arrived. Now that I’ve flown home from Lima and had a bit of time to process, I can reflect on advice I’ll be giving my friends when they study abroad in the future.
Note: most of this advice is probably best suited for students studying in larger cities that don’t speak English, on a program with little in-country support. Regardless, I hope it can be useful for all!
- As cliché as this seems, begin with the end in mind. I simply cannot emphasize how quickly time flies while abroad, and jotting down simple goals for your time will help you avoid regrets.
- That being said, manage expectations and goals. Reality in the country you study abroad in could be very different from what you previously imagined – the weather, the cost of living, the accent, the food. Come with purpose, but be willing to open your mind.
- Know what makes you happy and seek it out. Hanging out with English speaking friends and going out are always fun and important, but also easy. In my case, I always knew that going for a run (some friends and I ran a 10K in December!), some form of music (such as live concerts or salsa dancing), or spending time speaking Spanish with my friends from the university, could cheer me up, even though they took effort.
- Get over your fear of speaking Spanish (or whatever language) as quickly as possible. Speak up in class. Ask questions to strangers on the street. Go to movies or plays. And never tell yourself that you aren’t good enough – you don’t want to find yourself mid-semester and realize that you still hate ordering things at restaurants or talking to the cobrador on the bus.
- Do things that scare you. Seriously. You’ll say ‘I’m uncomfortable, I’ll mess up, it will be hard’, and you should do it anyway. Exceptions for illegal or truly physically unsafe activities. Example: I was very nervous about joining the student group Internacia (centered on international relations) on campus, as the only exchange student member. Would anyone understand me? Are all of these upperclassmen smarter than I am? However, because I knew it would challenge me and help me make new friends, I decided to join and have never regretted the decision.
- Be physically active (if that makes you happy). It was harder for me in a huge city, but it energized and focused me throughout the semester. Walk if you like. Run if you like. Find a place to hike. Bike or play soccer or join a dance class. It’s a great way to get out of the house and experience your city through different eyes.
- Think about the people that you surround yourself with, and don’t be afraid to use your friends as a support group. There are so many confusing, stressful, and sometimes even scary parts of study abroad, and you want to be able to turn to people who can help you get through those moments. Sometimes they’re international student friends, sometimes they are local students, and sometimes they can even be a professor or host family or neighbor.
- Learn how to incorporate school into your schedule early in the semester (I did not do this). Work ahead, because things in a different language take mil veces longer than expected. Take classes as seriously as you take them in IU; of course you don’t want to sacrifice experience for academics. But at the end of the day those four, ten-page papers aren’t going to write themselves.
- Go new places (and I don’t just mean a popular tourist site). Explore. Take a bus to a street you’ve never visited and walk into a random café. Look at maps – really look at maps. Be able to navigate your city better than the average Google Maps search, and don’t simply take taxis all the time. Turn navigation into a strength, and not just a crutch.
- There is a very fine balance in between being bored and being too busy. Some of the students I knew in Peru were bored. They had classes two days a week, weren’t really in any clubs or extra-curriculars, and didn’t seem to explore Lima that much. As a result, they never really seemed to love Lima. I, on the other hand, might have been too busy – with three days of 8-12 hours at the university and two days of a two-hour (one way) commute to volunteer, as well as a student organization and travel plans and Lima exploring….I don’t have much free time to do my homework. Do what feels comfortable, and be honest about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone (but not too far!).
- Find something about your host country that you can call your own – the food. The geography. The politics. The music. It will make returning all the more easier when you can continue to keep that part of your study abroad life in your United States life.
- Don’t be afraid to make relationships in your new home. It’s naturally easier to befriend the international students – not just because of the language barrier, but because they are also transitory visitors, a familiarity to cling to. However, Peruvians (or whatever nationality) are people to, and were some of the best friends I made.
- Never forget that as a foreign student, you occupy a specific, special place in the country and community. It can be hard some days – one minute I felt like I’d lived in Lima my whole life, yet the next moment I felt like an idiot on the bus. I always tried to remind myself: You are a student. You are not a stay-for-two-days-or-two-weeks tourist. You speak Spanish. You try to understand cultural contexts. You have friends. You belong here.
I can’t really comment on complete readjustment to life in the US yet, because luckily, I get to try and follow some of my own advice! In January, I fly to Madrid, Spain to continue my year abroad. I’ve never been to Europe, and I’m more than a bit nervous to leave the home in Latin America were I was so happy.
Here’s to uncertainty and adventure and new experiences in the New Year!