One year ago I was preparing to study abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark. I felt such a mix of competing emotions from excitement and anticipation to nervousness and fear. In the months leading up to my departure, I found myself constantly researching, hoping to find the perfect packing list, advice column, and sightseeing recommendations that would properly prepare me for the experience. In truth, no one article made me feel completely ready, because most of what I learned, I learned along the way; but hey, that didn’t stop me from searching! Here are a few lessons that I learned while studying abroad and things I wish I knew going into my experience.
You Will Get Homesick
Unsurprisingly, homesickness is one of those topics that people rarely talk about while abroad. It can feel like if you are missing home, then you are not fully enjoying the experience, but that is not true! Arriving in a new country, especially if you do not know many other people there or do not speak the language, can be overwhelming to say the least. Give yourself permission to feel whatever you feel when you first arrive, and I assure you that you are not alone in those feelings. It took knowing my friends abroad for a few weeks before we all admitted to each other that we all cried the first night. While you may miss home at times, you also will probably not keep in as close contact with your family and friends from home given different schedules and priorities, but that is okay! Be intentional and schedule calls with the people who really matter to you, but it is okay if you do not talk to some people as much as you imagined.
Don’t Forget About Your Home Country!
Every person I talked to abroad said their biggest regret was not exploring their home city enough. While traveling is a crucial part of study abroad, you have an unparalleled opportunity to live and immerse yourself in a new culture so I highly recommend spending the first few weeks, and especially weekends, traveling around the city you are in before you begin to travel elsewhere. My friends and I spent the first month in Denmark, visiting the many castles, finding all the best cafes and farmers markets, exploring different museums, and just getting to know the city. Looking back, I am so grateful I spent so much time in Copenhagen so that it did not just feel like the place I studied during the week between trips, but it really felt like home for those few months.
Lean Into The Local Culture (and Don’t Be Embarrassed When You Don’t Understand Something!)
Part of going abroad is accepting that you will be uncomfortable some of the time. It can be hard not to feel embarrassed when you do not know where you are, what something means, or what the customs are, and it is completely okay to ask people for directions or clarification when you need it. That being said, lean into the local culture, even if that puts you outside of your comfort zone. Explore the local bars and cafes — they may just turn out to be your favorite spots! If the culture is big on biking, rent a bike for a few months. Most of all, talk to locals as much as you can. It was through my friendships with Danish people that I had some of my best experiences and learned the most about Danish culture.
Find An Intentional Way to Remember Everything
This one may seem obvious but time will fly by faster than you think. I purchased a new journal for abroad and used it to write down all my thoughts, realizations, and favorite experiences as I went. Many of my friends also started Instagram accounts dedicated to study abroad so that they could share lots of pictures with friends and family, while also documenting their experiences for themselves. Find some way to keep track of everything you do, whether that means buying a postcard in every city you visit, taking all the random brochures and stickers you find at museums, or even journaling at the end of every day.
What You Want to Get out of Abroad is Unique to YOU
Everyone’s experiences and goals are different. Some people want to explore the country’s social scene by going to clubs and other people would rather wake up early to watch the sunrise in a new part of the city, or maybe you find yourself somewhere in between. Be true to yourself and what you want out of this experience. It took time for me to learn that it was okay to give myself permission to just be and do what I pleased, rather than focusing on the “shoulds.”
Going abroad will be exciting, uncomfortable, challenging, exhilarating, and scary in ways you cannot yet understand. Try to just embrace the unknown and hold onto the excitement that initially pushed you to go in the first place. As trite as it may sound, studying abroad truly can change your life, and I hope that these tips will help you get excited and enjoy your time, wherever in the world you find yourself!