I’ve studied abroad. But not really. If you are currently studying abroad, or plan to in the future, I can assure you that my overseas experience was a bit different. I began my college experience in London, rather than waiting until Junior year to try the whole passport-and-a-long-ass-flight routine. Whenever I say, “I spent a year in London,” (I transferred during sophomore year), people assume I studied abroad. I did not.
At my school, Americans who were enrolled in degree programs were labelled “Degree Students,” while Americans who were specifically there for a semester or two were labelled “Study Abroads.” So, while I was an American sewing my wild oats just like you might be, there were some major differences. I moved to the UK when I was 18, fresh out of high school. I’d never had a keg party experience, I’d never lived in a dry dorm, and I’d never been to a major college sporting event. Though I wasn’t always on my best behavior, my best friends were from all over the world, and I could see through their eyes how Americans earned bad raps as being obnoxious, immature, and annoying. Make the most of your experience. Don’t make these mistakes.
1. Do Know That Your Accent Says It All.
Have you ever heard an English person swear? I don’t care how “sodding” pissed off they are, it sounds so much nicer than an American politely asking, “Whaat tye-am is etttt?” Most natives of whatever country you’re in won’t be instantly appalled by your accent, but they will know approximately where you hail from.
2. Don’t Get Wasted and Yell Things That Would Be Funny at Home.
As I just stated, your accent gives you away. Which can work to your advantage… or not. Screaming your school’s sports chant– P-I-T-T Let’s Go Pitt!– is not only loud and obnoxious, but do you really think the residents of Queensland, Australia give a f*** about the University of Pittsburgh? Singing bar songs (American or otherwise) will also make everyone, including fellow Americans, want to punch you in the face.
3. Do Be Polite.
You’re bound to get lost. Or at least need to ask directions. Be nice about it. If you don’t understand the public transportation system, ask a station attendant, but be nice. When I was in London, I would ask politely, “Do you know when the next train to [random borough] is coming?” And if I was cordial, they might ask where my final destination was, and then give me a better route that no guidebook could ever highlight.
4. Don’t Get Angry Because Their Systems Are Different.
Screaming, “God, the T is so much more efficient” on a train or bus isn’t going to welcome any assistance. Getting angry because the subway (or whatever they happen to call it over there) doesn’t run 24 hours a day isn’t going to get you home. And if you ask a stranger for help, and they don’t know how to point you in the right direction, blatant rudeness is just uncalled for. Getting frustrated because you can’t understand their language/accent also isn’t going to encourage them to be patient with you.
5. Do Learn the Customs.
Immerse yourself in the culture any way you can. If you have a work Visa, get a part time job. You’ll meet the locals, or other study abroads from other countries. I worked at a freaking Starbucks, and helped a Chinese coworker with his verb agreements. He gave me a paper art Tiger. I also befriended several English students, who explained the concepts of A-Levels, and years later, we are still close. They also brought me to the bars and clubs that no other “Study Abroads” had stumbled upon.
If you can’t work or if you don’t waste your time behind a cash register in a foreign land, try to befriend the waitress at the cafe you go to every weekend, or attend as many community events as you can, just to take it all in.
6. Don’t Insist on Sticking to Your American Ways.
How do you know that German delicacy won’t whet your palate? Just give it a try. Don’t insist on shaking hands when the customs of your new country are to bow. Sure, things may seem awkward at first, but eventually, they’ll grow on you. Why not stay in the states if you’re going to cry over the difference in plumbing systems? Being narrow-minded will only mean you’re missing out on a culture that could change your life. Oh, and though it might be okay to shack up at a frat party, keep in mind that in some parts of the world, our American ways can be shocking. You don’t have to censor yourself necessarily, but just be smart.
7. Do Travel.
If you’re studying in a European country, you can get a cheap flight to so many other parts of the continent, on the cheap. Check out Ireland, Italy, Spain, or France. Check out a place you’ve never heard of (the Canary Islands are to Britain what Cancun is to the U.S.) If you’re in a big country, like Australia, China, or Africa, check out another province. Even if it’s just for the weekend. Once you’re back in the states, these place won’t be so accessible.
8. Don’t Be Too Impulsive.
If you buy the first token souvenir you see, you may regret it later. You might find find a better deal five minutes later (or you might get screwed over the first time around). Take your time to learn about the trends of the country, and buy something more sentimental than a “J’Adore Paris” t-shirt. You don’t have to do it all in one day– you’ve got a few months to learn the ropes.
9. Do Enjoy Yourself.
Don’t cry every night because you miss your family. Don’t rack up a phone bill calling your boyfriend in the States. Take in all of the little things, whether it’s a tiny coffee shop or a local park. The days of your study-abroad will fly by. Make it count.
10. Don’t Feel the Need to Take Unnecessary Pictures.
Imagine you’re in Times Square in New York. You know that gaggle of people taking pictures of Planet Hollywood, who take up the whole sidewalk and won’t let any pedestrians pass until they’ve gotten their group shot? Ugh. Asking the coffee shop attendant in Amsterdam to pose for a pic of you and your first space cake is cliche and annoying. It’s okay to document all of the new sights you encounter, but there’s no need to objectify the locals for your own personal scrap-booking needs.
11. Don’t View a Lower Drinking Age as an All-Access Party Pass.
In countries with more leniant drinking laws, students your age have been raised to drink in moderation. It’s not such a big deal to get into a bar without being carded. So, if you’re studying abroad and you’re not 21, take your newfound legality as an opportunity to learn about how certain wines are made, or how hoppy you like your beer. Try all of the “real” Sangria, Sake, Mojitos, Caipirhinas, and Ales that you can, but learn to appreciate a nice drink, rather than play the “how many beers can I pound in an hour” game.