7 Things I Wish I Knew Before Studying Abroad

Last September, I waved goodbye to my family as I left to board the plane that would take me to Istanbul, Turkey. This would have been the start of a year-long adventure, filled with laughs, tears, and a lot of travel. There were many ups and downs but the decision to leave and embark on this journey is the best decision I have ever made. 

Now that I am back, there are many things I look back on and wish I did differently or had at least prepared myself for. If I had known to do some of these things before I left, it would have helped me not only have a better time abroad, but also save me a lot of headache.

  1. 1. Leave the little things at home

    I brought my favourite jasmine scented candle with me. I thought that because I would be away for so long, I would need it in my dorm. I told myself it would help me study like it does at home, but I didn’t even light it once. The truth is, I studied with friends a lot, in libraries and in cafés. When I did study in my room, I never thought of lighting it and never even bought a lighter.

    I brought a lot of books with me that I wanted to read during my spare time or for the plane ride. I never read any of them, in fact, I bought books while I was abroad and read those instead.

    So, ditch the things you can buy in your host country, unless absolutely necessary, as they just take up space in your luggage that you can use for other things. As much as I loved my candle and my books, not only did I not use them, but I also had to bring them back home.  

  2. 2. You don’t need nearly as many clothes as you think you do

    Although I wouldn’t say I brought so many clothes, I definitely brought a few too many jeans. I wish I ditched the extra sweaters & pants to make room for all the stuff I would end up buying. I bought quite a few clothes during my time abroad (as well as other things) and this resulted in having to spend extra money bringing everything back in the end. That cardigan I barely wear at home? I don’t know why I thought I was going to start wearing it abroad. Rule of thumb: if you don’t wear it often at home, you’ll never wear it abroad. Just bring the minimum essentials, plus a few extra, but that’s it. Depending on where you’re going, it might be even cheaper to buy clothes there (and you’ll really really want to).

    Don’t bring so many things. Whatever your end result is, unpack a third. You really don’t need so much, especially with the things you’re going to end up buying, including souvenirs. 

  3. 3. Culture shock is real and it can hit you hard 

    During my first day in Istanbul, I decided to walk around the area I would be living in to get a feel for it. I saw a cafe called Robert’s Coffee and decided to go in for an iced coffee. I walked in and with a big smile on my face I asked the guy behind the counter for an “iced coffee.” He started speaking to me in Turkish and my mind went blank. I was so shocked (I don’t know what I was expecting) and all that was going on inside my head was 'uhhh.' I had to repeat iced coffee ten more times and when that didn’t work, I put my arms around myself and shivered and said “coffee.” He still didn’t get it. Eventually he opened a menu and asked me to point to what I needed, and it worked. When I went to pay, he said the number in Turkish and I blanked again. He wrote it down for me and I went on my way.

    All I thought when I was walking out of the cafe was 'you are definitely not at home.' It sort of hit me at that moment how different life was going to be and I panicked slightly because I didn’t know a lick of Turkish. I fuelled that unfamiliar feeling in my chest into excitement. I told myself it would be fun to navigate this culture and language barrier and by the time I got back to my room, I was more excited for what my year would look like. 

    P.S six months later I was speaking to the locals in Turkish, bargaining in the markets, and arguing with the taxi drivers like a pro.

  4. 4. Go with the flow

    The best and most unforgettable moments were ones that I didn’t plan ahead. No matter what I did, I had a great time, but the truly life-changing moments were spontaneous and last minute. Some of my best memories were late nights with friends on campus and last-minute plans to head to the city (or out of the city).

    Don’t plan your exchange experience too much before you go. You never know what will happen when you actually reach your destination or who you’ll meet, and you’ll probably find yourself making new plans with new friends. Before I left, I only had one travel destination in mind and I was surprised to find that once I met my friends, my plans changed. I did things I didn’t even think of doing when I left or knew that I was even capable of doing. I firmly believe that because I didn’t excessively plan, I was open to all ideas and experiences. Go with the flow and have fun!

  5. 5. You’ll probably feel alone at some point

    Sometimes you may feel alone and very far away from home. For me, this hit at about my fifth month in Istanbul. In January, after all my friends left, I felt so alone. Not only was the dorm campus completely empty, which added to my loneliness, I mostly cooped up in my room. If there’s one thing I wish I did differently here, it would be to go out and explore more on my own. Istanbul felt very empty for the while I was alone, and even when the new exchange students rolled in and I made new friends, it still felt that way for a while. It was as though I could physically feel the distance from my family and friends and it made me miss them more than I had in the months before. Of course, this feeling went away after a while, but it sucked. 

    Don’t worry if you get this feeling, there’s nothing wrong with you. Call your family - not too much though (or you’ll really miss them) - and find ways to spark your creativity and adventure!

  6. 6. Find a way to balance your studies and fun

    I’ve had to write essays on busses and planes on the way back to my university after a weekend away. I’ve written essays using hotel computers because it was due the next morning and our flight back to the city was delayed. I’ve had to say no to amazing weekend trips to study, and while it sucks, it’s part of the deal.

    Studying will be a big part of your time abroad and it’s very easy for people to forget this part. If I could have changed anything, I would have tried to figure out a way early on to juggle my adventures and my studies. However, all the exchange students bonded over the bizarre ways we were all juggling school and travel. You truly don’t know what you’re capable of until you’ve dug yourself into a hole and have to write an entire essay on a 10-hour bus ride. Ah, the joy. 

  7. 7.  Oh, the friends you’ll make

    I don’t know if this is necessarily something I wish I would have known before going abroad but I’m going to add it in here because this might be the best thing about the entire study abroad experience. I was nervous about making friends before I went to Turkey, I wasn’t sure if I would make any and I knew my experience might depend on the friends I would make. So let me set your fears aside: You are going to forge friendships that form a whole new meaning to friendships. I’ve met my best friends whom I cannot even begin to imagine never knowing, and sometimes I catch myself thinking that I would have never met them if I had not decided to study abroad. 

So remember, don’t overpack, eat a lot, go with the flow, be open to meeting all kinds of different people, and most importantly, have fun!