How to Make the Most of a Study Abroad Experience

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Florence Duomo

If you’re preparing to study abroad, you probably have some grand, exciting ideas about what it will be like. And, in retrospect, you will remember it that way. But in reality, once you’ve unpacked your bags and settled into your new temporary home, the banality of life will creep its way into your everyday routine and settle in, too. 

My bedroom in Florence, Italy.

My bedroom in Florence, Italy.

Think about it: You have a bedroom, you have roommates, you have a commute, you have classes. You’ll need to go grocery shopping and cook food for yourself if you’re not in a homestay. You will have homework and new friends to make. You still have the expectations from parents or your school that you’ll return with solid grades. You might even feel some kind of pressure to come back a more culturally experienced person. 

You see, traveling abroad is an amazing experience that you will treasure for the rest of your life — and it will open your mind to new cultures in ways you can only imagine before you depart. I recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who can take this opportunity. But assimilating into another culture is hard work, and the need to maintain your relationships back home doesn’t make it easy. Your life hasn’t gone away; it’s just changed scenery.

Taken from the Ponte Vecchio just after arriving in Florence in 2006.

Taken from the Ponte Vecchio just after arriving in Florence in 2006.

I studied abroad for just a semester in Florence, Italy in 2006. It was something I considered incredibly difficult and emotionally taxing at the time, but I look back on those four short months now as among the most formative experiences of my life. As someone who has traveled quite a bit both in childhood as an Army brat and in adulthood, that’s saying something.

(If you have the opportunity to study abroad, please do. And if you think you can’t, I encourage you to visit your university’s study abroad department to learn about your options first. I worked for two years in my public university’s study abroad center after returning from my semester in Italy, and I know well that it’s possible for a great many who think it’s not — both for reasons financial and academic.)

They say that all advice is autobiographical. And in this case, it’s certainly true. I have a few regrets about how I spent my time in Florence. So here is my best, most sincere advice on making the most of this incredibly significant life experience.

Revisiting the apartment I rented while studying abroad in Florence, Italy.

Revisiting the apartment I rented while studying abroad in Florence, Italy.

1. Make friends with your classmates.
Studying abroad can be one of the most lonely things you’ll ever do. It can also be a time when you’ll make friends you could keep for life. 

If you’re introverted, it can be tempting to not make much of an effort to get to know your classmates, as you’ll only be around them for the duration of your trip. But you need friends; and no one is better equipped than your fellow study abroad classmates to understand what you’re going through. Being in a foreign country is a bonding experience. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to make friends with the people who are on this journey with you. 

Exploring Barcelona during spring break with my Florence classmates.

Exploring Barcelona during spring break with my Florence classmates.

2. Resist the urge to travel every weekend.
No matter where you are, you didn’t make the careful choice to be there only to be gone all the time. The point of studying abroad is to actually assimilate into another country, language and culture. That’s pretty hard to do when you’re only there on weekdays. I truly understand the temptation to go somewhere new every weekend — in my case, all of Europe was a potential playground with ultra-cheap Ryanair flights — but I urge you to stay put and get to know the place you’ve chosen as your adopted hometown. 

That’s not to say you shouldn’t explore, but be sure you’re not seeing everything else at the expense of the town you’ve adopted for such a precious short while. Before you leave, know very, very well what it’s like to stroll the streets of your town on a purely aimless weekend afternoon. 

The view of Florence's Duomo from the Boboli Gardens.

The view of Florence’s Duomo from the Boboli Gardens.

3. Recognize the signs of cultural fatigue, and address it.
If you’ve been there a few weeks, what you’re experiencing is beyond culture shock — this is straight-up weariness. While you’re exploring your new city and country, its language and customs, you need to remember to take care of yourself and take things slowly. About a week or two into my semester abroad, I had a bit of a meltdown about my inability to find hangers for my clothes. It seems silly to describe in retrospect, but my landlord had put simple Ikea wardrobes in each of our rooms (closets did not exist in our 15th-century building) without also giving us plastic hangers, and despite my best efforts, I could not find a home goods store in the relatively small town of Florence that carried them. Even if Wi-Fi and internet access had been ubiquitous at that point, I still doubt a mom-and-pop (and they’re almost all mom-and-pop) Italian home goods store would have been listed well enough for me to find it. 

The meltdown happened because I was desperate to feel settled in and comfortable in my new home, and pulling clothing from my increasingly disorganized suitcase for the 15th time is what finally did me in. I still don’t know where else I would have gotten those hangers except Ikea, which was a 30-minute bus ride outside of town. In my life back home, I drove a car everywhere. I’d never navigated public transportation on my own before, and the idea of doing that solo terrified me. If I’d made better friends with my roommates, I might’ve been able to knock that out my first week.

Of course it wasn’t about hangers but emotional and mental fatigue. It’s not unusual for study abroad students to experience this, so be prepared. Take care of yourself as best you can. 

Catching up with my former painting professor in Florence, seven years later.

Catching up with my former painting professor in Florence, seven years later.

4. Do whatever you can to make friends with locals.
I happened to study abroad in a place where it was difficult to meet locals. For one, I was placed in an apartment with American students instead of a homestay. While that experience was good for me in its own way, I do regret that I didn’t get to know more Italians during my time in Florence, which a homestay would have afforded me. I happened to study abroad in Florence the very semester that saw the most American students than any other destination in the world. Combined with the rumor I’ve heard that Florentines are notoriously difficult to get to know even for other Florentines, it’s no wonder I only met those who worked with my school in some way. 

Regardless of how hard it was in Florence, this is true anywhere — so keep in mind that you will have to go out of your way to meet locals in most cases. See also: How to Meet Locals While Traveling.

The view from Cortona, Italy.

The view from Cortona, Italy.

Cortona, Italy

5. Go somewhere by yourself.
I had this idea in my mind that before I left Florence, I would see Cortona — the filming location of Under the Tuscan Sun. I know this is considered a cheesy chick flick, but I thought it would be fun to visit a town portrayed in a movie and see how it compared to my real-life experience of it. The movie is about a woman at a crossroads in life moving to a foreign country, adapting and creating her own meaning from what was happening around her. It wasn’t a story that held a lot of significance for me until I arrived and sat by myself in the piazza of the town’s main square and ate pasta by myself under the blue spring sky on my own. By that point, I had been in Florence for four months and was on the cusp of leaving. By its very unplanned nature, this day trip fostered a sense of independence and liberation that I have yet to replicate. I still treasure that experience. 

If you’re studying abroad, you might have pre-planned trips, or you might have new friends that beckon you to join them. This is all well and good, but be sure you take some time to go off by yourself. Solo travel can be among the most rewarding experiences you’ll have. See also: The Independent Ladies’ Guide to Solo Travel.

6. Extend your trip and travel after your study concludes.
One thing a lot of my classmates did is travel after their study abroad experiences concluded. I didn’t plan ahead for this, and I regret it. The weeks following a study abroad experience are precious and, if possible, should be used to travel around and explore.

7. Stay open-minded.
If there’s one underlying point you should take away from all of this, it’s to let your old ideas, the chips on your shoulder, the points of pride fall away, whatever it is you might be holding onto. Let new ideas and perspectives take their place. No one is asking you to compromise your principles, but the least you owe this experience is your open-minded acceptance of whatever it might throw your way. Trust me — you’ll find your study abroad experience to be more worthwhile than you could possibly measure, even years from now.

Photo credit: Megan Van Groll

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