Am I going to be totally on my own?
If you’re not traveling with a friend or two, have no fear. Even if you’re going as part of a school-sponsored trip, it might be more beneficial to travel without your close friends at your side. “I recommend not signing up for study abroad programs with your friends,” says Marissa. “If you go on your own you are much more likely to get to know new people. The friendships I made while abroad are now some of the most important to me.”
Traveling on your own also means you have more room to do as you please and not depend on working with multiple schedules. “People who do study abroad with friends wind up feeling like they have to do everything with them,” Marissa explains. “If I wanted to go do something, I was free to do it. Sometime I got a few people in the program to go and sometimes I went alone, but I didn't feel like I had to limit my options or compromise because somebody else disagreed.”
The nice thing about studying abroad is that you’ll more likely than not be surrounded by students from all over the world in the same situation as you – alone in a foreign country without their usual circle of friends. New BFFs are anywhere and everywhere! “I met people through classes, on trips, at the bars, on trains... it was so much fun and such a challenge!” says Hannah.
If you’re still nervous about traveling on your own, there are several precautions you can take. Make sure your friends and family know where you’re going to be, and have contact info for the correct U.S. Embassy in the countries you’ll be visiting. (Make sure you have this info too, in case you ever need help!) The U.S. State Department also offers a program known as Smart Traveler Enrollment Program or STEP a totally free program that lets you “register” your trip with the department to provide quicker, more helpful service in an emergency and keeps you updated about any travel emergencies the department issues.
The friendships you form abroad will last way after your flight home, too. “I made all new friends instantly and they're still some of my best friends, even now that we're back in America living in different states!” Hannah says.
Eek – “no hablo español” or “Je ne parle pas le français!” HELP!
The best way to get around not knowing the language in your new country is through preparation ahead of time. “Learn basic words and phrases in the native language,” suggests Murray. “Purchasing an app that translates before you go is helpful, one that doesn’t require Wi-Fi is even better!”
Don’t be afraid to ask for help, too. “For travelers with little or no local language skills, you can usually find somebody with at least a little English to help you,” says Marissa. Don’t overuse this resource though! “Try not to rely on that too much if you don't have to. Make the effort to learn basic phrases and use them, even if it is clear the person you are interacting with speaks English too,” she says.
Hannah also struggled a bit with communicating on her trip, as she’d never taken a single class in the native language before embarking on her trip. “Meeting Italians was especially hard because of the language barrier, but they tried really hard and were understanding if we didn't understand,” she said. “The best learning took place when I was forced to speak in Italian. The process of trying to get someone who doesn't understand English to understand you when you barely know their language is a huge learning experience!”
Keep in mind that language is a source of pride for many natives as well. Respect cultural differences, and don’t let your frustration translate into anger when communicating. “Something as small as saying ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ in the local language can make a positive impression. If you are respectful of the people and culture around you, you will get a more friendly response and better help when you need it,” Marissa illustrates.
Any final words of advice?
“My study abroad trips were some of the best experiences I've ever had. I always encourage people to travel, and studying abroad is a great way to do it. Get out and see the world!” Marissa reflected. “Just dive in! You WILL have a better time if you make new friends, eat new foods and really do your best to immerse yourself in your experience. I know plenty of people who subsisted on Coke and the jars of peanut butter that they brought from home who were extremely unhappy because they never really let go of the things they expect at home."
Hannah also had some advice for future study abroad participants. “Say yes to everything you can say yes to, but also take care of yourself! Rest and good food are necessary to keep your spirits up and enjoy your time abroad!” she advises. Hannah also emphasized focusing on the positives as well. “Live in the moment and take everything opportunity to try something new, she said. “Stay in hostels! Ride on trains! They're some of the best experiences you could ever have!”
Even if you’re going through an organized program or trip offered through your school or an organization like Contiki, don’t be afraid to pursue your own adventures either. “I went outside the program and volunteered in the community which was one of the best choices I made. I was able to really interact with the local culture and meet people outside of the academic world. If this is feasible where you study, I would definitely encourage it!” said Marissa.
Make it your goal to try something new every day, or challenge yourself to get out of your comfort zone and do things you’d never be caught dead doing back on campus. One of the coolest things about such a crazy diverse world is exploring these awesome differences and connecting with people that, on the surface, may seem worlds apart, but actually have more in common with you than you may think.