Lucky duck that I am, I had the fortune to study abroad multiple times in college. My first time studying abroad in Florence, Italy, was a learning experience. When I decided to study abroad again in Thailand, I was able to take a lot from my first experience to make sure I picked a program better suited to my personal study abroad style. I was also able to do some things I'd wished I had done before, and avoid doing some things I had wished I hadn't done.
Even still, now that I am a few years out of college and into the "real world, " I can look back on my study abroad experiences with a new perspective and see even more things I wish I had done a little bit differently. Becoming more involved in my host community and immersed in the host culture and language were two big stand-outs, but there a number of things that I now realize I could have done to really maximize my study abroad experience.
- Researched programs extensively. I took at face value the list of options my Study Abroad Office gave me, and I wish I had looked at a site like Go Overseas to compare options and read reviews from program alumni. I would've put in the extra legwork to get papers signed and credits transferred so I could do the study abroad program that best suited my academic goals.
- Reflected more on what I wanted from my program provider. I found that I preferred a more integrated, hands-off (and cheaper!) program, which was not what my first study abroad experience was at all. Knowing what you want from your program from the start will make things go a lot smoother.
Be sure to befriend the locals
- Gotten more involved in my host community. I didn't try to seek out volunteer or internship opportunities - or even extracurricular sports or interest groups - and I really wish I had. This is an important part of becoming immersed in the culture and feeling like your host city is really like a home.
- Pushed myself to improve my language skills. It's so easy to fall back on English, especially if you're living with other study-abroaders. I wish I had tried harder to live completely in another language and to make the most of my language learning while abroad. Furthermore, I wish I had continued to practice my language skill when I returned home.
- Studied somewhere offbeat. Italy was great, but it is one of the most popular study abroad destinations. Thailand was an improvement, but I sometimes wish I had pushed myself to go somewhere even more unique or off-the-beaten path, somewhere that makes people go, "You studied WHERE?" when I tell them about it. A strange, little-known country, or even just a really small, out-of-the-way town. Maybe even somewhere a little intimidating, where I would be constantly challenged.
- Stayed longer. One semester is great, but what a difference one year could make. A semester flies by, but I think you could really call a place home, and really see a change in yourself, after you've lived abroad a year.
- Made more local friends. The less integrated the school, the more effort required to meet locals. I interacted more with other Americans and foreign students than those from my host cities, and now I regret not having more of those connections.
- Gone without expectations. It's hard not to have high expectations of your study abroad experience. Some days are just routine days, and that shouldn't be seen as disappointing. It's really pretty cool, if you think about it. While I felt I was pretty good at managing my expectations, I met far too many fellow study-abroaders who felt disappointed or couldn't adapt to even simple things, like not being able to split a restaurant check between four credit cards. Lower your expectations about things being out-of-this-world awesome every day, and lose your expectations...