Let’s be real: everyone who studies abroad is so excited about the place they will be visiting and the people they will meet, not necessarily focusing on the courses being taught. As obvious as it might seem that STUDY abroad has quite a bit of work associated with it, it seems like some of the students who are studying around me are baffled by the expectation to complete work at such an exciting time. Along with studying during your adventures, students have all of these amazing plans that they know will absolutely work out 100% of the time and will be perfect and be life changing…
I think it’s time to set some realistic expectations for what you might experience while studying abroad.
If you were paying this much for just the trip, you have definitely chosen the wrong travel path. More than likely, you will be receiving some credit towards a major, minor, certificate, or as a general elective when you study abroad. It is expected, above all else, that you complete the requirements of the program AT LEAST to a minimal, passing level. All programs and schools abroad are different, but the expectation is that you will respect the instructor’s time as much as they will try and allow you some time to explore your new city.
As an example, my program is only 6 weeks: 2 courses, 3 weeks each. Missing one day would be missing almost 7% of the course material. Considering there are exams and assignments associated with the class as well, missing a single day to tour a neighboring country could cost you some serious points in the course. Even in the excitement, classes come first. If you need some extra time, fly in a few days early. Or, book a one-way flight and fly out of another country, giving you some time to explore outside of your temporary home country.
My suggestion is find a program that has study tours involved in the courses. For example, my “Clinical Approach to Neuroscience” course has study tours in hospitals across Denmark, where most of the classes are actually taught. I won’t be sitting in a classroom all day, that’s for sure! Now, I get to travel across the city with my instructors and classmates while earning my credits. “Animal Models of Fear” (session 2 course) has a week study tour in Munich! I’ve never been to Germany and am so excited to be able to spend a few days there, yet again, for course credit! It would be so hard for me to focus in a classroom while an unknown world is waiting for me. This was by far the best choice for me and an excellent choice for students to consider when choosing a program.
2. Money, Money, Money, Money!
I will tell you from experience, studying in Europe is much more expensive than living almost anywhere in your home city (wherever that is). I’ve spent time in New York and Washington DC, both cities considered to have a pretty high standard of living in the US, yet the money I spent there is a fraction of what I need in Europe.
This isn’t meant to be a scare tactic for travel, but a realistic viewpoint to hold when studying abroad. I am very frugal: I hate spending more than I have to on any service and eat off the dollar menu with coupons whenever I can. At home, I spend around $50 every 2-3 weeks on food, sometimes less…the average grocery bill for college students in Denmark is around $75 a week, including eating out for lunch twice per week.
I don’t know about you, but that makes my heart drop. That is so much money to me! That being said, when else can you have a Danish pastry made fresh for lunch by actual Danes? It is an expense that should be budgeted for, but also watched closely. I highly suggest picking up a few bags of rice, bread, peanut butter, and maybe some butter. Grilled PB sandwiches and rice bowls will save you a ton of money for breakfast and late-night snacks.
3. Language Barrier
Wherever you travel to, make sure you know some basic phrases. While studying in Japan, I was the only person in a group of 11 people who spoke any Japanese… we were relying on a 14-year-old to get our group through customs, hotels, metros, security, and every day life in Tokyo. I wasn’t anywhere near fluent, but the people I spoke to were so excited that I was trying. They were grateful (to me, at least) for trying to adapt to their culture instead of expecting them to address mine.
Of course, no one expects you to be fluent. In Denmark, English is widely spoken, so many of the Danes you would come in contact with there might be able to answer basic questions and hold light conversation. But, the appreciation that people have in their home country when you can greet them, thank them, and ask a few questions in their language is worth the effort of learning. Plus, watching them laugh at your accent/pronunciation is an excellent way to break the ice.
4. Cultural Nuances
I know, duh. The culture will be different across the globe. But I’m not talking generalizations, here. It is a really good idea to look online and see what some people list as the most important cultural differences in the countries you’ll be staying in. For example, Danes do not use pleasantries almost at all. No “please pass that” or “will you please” for them. They will tell you “give me that” or “let me see that.” It may seem rude on arrival if you are not aware of that particular cultural norm (trust me, I was not prepared).
I thought that I would be totally fine. I really did. I’ve been away from home before, flown by myself, even been through international travel without either of my parents before I could even drive myself to the airport!
I am already missing home. Immensely.
The best advice that was given to me that I wish that I followed was staying off social media as much as possible. I know, you want to share your pictures and tell everyone how great studying abroad is, I get that. But taking a few seconds to post a picture or a status isn’t what I’m talking about.
Don’t look at your best friend’s pictures from the party last weekend. Don’t look at your family cookout on your computer from class. Avoid seeing the amazing time your significant other may be having at a friend’s house. It causes such an instant feeling of — for lack of a better word — need. You just feel like you need to go home or you need to call your friends.
This is a chance to experience true independence. I love my mom, but I know that she won’t do anything but worry while I’m gone. For that reason, most of our communication will be one way. I’m sending videos back to her once every few days, just letting her see that I’m OK and tell her about my trip. But, my mom is also not the most understanding person in the world. If I tell her I’m going on a boat tour this weekend to Sweden, she might have a heart attack (I’m totally serious). Now, I miss her and feel guilty for going on a trip she doesn’t approve of.
It’s OK to disconnect for a few weeks. You can tell everyone all about it when you get back. Post hundreds of pictures from the airplane. Call your boyfriend in the terminal. They’ll be here when you get back. Enjoy the time you have.
Honestly, it feels like there is so much to cover, but it might be best to leave it there. The whole point of you starting this journey is to discover a new culture, a new city, a new way of life. Don’t let me or anyone else tell you how your trip should go or what you should experience. At the same time, be realistic. We aren’t made of money and won’t be able to travel the entirety of Europe in our short 6 weeks. We won’t make a best friend in a day.
However, I can promise one thing: it’ll totally be worth it.