Everything you need to know before you go and study abroad
All the best tips from someone who’s been there, done that
For many of you students who have signed up to a year abroad, you're probably wondering what's in store. If you’re off to America this list will be perfect for you. These tips were born from what I learnt during my year at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, but they’ll be useful wherever you have chosen to venture. So have a read, take heed, and Godspeed.
Don't underestimate yourself! Say 'YES' to trying new things! A friend is going for a road trip? hitch a ride! A day trip to the beach? Get your spade and bucket! Caving? Squeeze yourself in (unless you have claustrophobia)! Someone who you met once has invited you to stay at their house over Easter? Pack your PJs! These were all experiences I was lucky enough to have had, all because I said yes.
Throw yourself in! Depending on who you are, this can be hard at first; you already feel like you’re doing so much: adapting to a new place, culture, and a different way of life, trust me, I know. But getting involved is ultimately what made my experience and helped me meet some pretty great people! I joined the Outing Club which did outdoor sports such as hiking, canoeing etc. Societies are great ways to make like-minded friends and find your home away from home.
Save, save, save!
You know what they say: students are time rich and money poor. Saving up means you can stay Stateside and explore once your studies are over, making the most of that time bank! Getting a job at your university (you’re usually only allowed on campus jobs under your J1 visa) is always an option too. Make the most of that free gym!
That aunt you met once, who lives in New York? Drop her a line. She might have a spare bedroom or two for you and your friends. You are a poor student and people understand that. Make use of your connections. You can even save money and effort on your arrival: check if there are other students from your home university who have the same Study Abroad placement as you and hit them up; sharing hotel rooms and transport is a good way to save money! If you're in The States Peter Pan buses are a lifesaver! And Hopper is a good app to source cheap flights.
Find other ways to see new places. Some of my friends did the 'Workaway' scheme which meant they got free room and board with their host family and could explore the area they were stationed in.
Create a playlist!
This was a piece of advice from one of my friends I made out there. Make a playlist for your year abroad! That way you'll have an audio album of all the memories and emotions you felt, enabling you to re-live moments from your year through song.
Go to concerts!
That obscure band you’ve been obsessed with for years… now’s your chance to see them live!
Make the most of being in America (or whichever exotic location you are lucky enough to study at). A couple of my favourite country artists (yes, country, don’t judge me), happened to be touring whilst I was in the USA. Since they rarely play outside of America, I snatched up the opportunity to see them in the flesh; though the trips did involve a seven hour solo adventure to Poughkeepsie and getting almost-stuck in a car park out of a Stephen King Novel, but that’s a story for another day. We also saw Smash Mouth (there was lots of headbanging).
Be kind to yourself!
You are human. You cannot expect yourself to be happy all the time. In fact there will be times, especially during the first few weeks, where you will feel darn-right rotten. This is natural; you don’t have the comfort blanket of your friends and family; everything is new. But you will make new friends (a bunch of them will probably be fellow international students), you will find your people and you will get through it. Talk to friends around you about how you feel, even if you’re afraid to; odds are, they're feeling the same way or have been through something similar. Even my most adventurous pals experienced home-sickness.
Listen to your favourite music, take time for yourself, eat your favourite foods, have a ‘movies in bed day’, or go outside. And laugh. Laughter is great. Also, sometimes you just have to let yourself be, feel how you are feeling, and wait for the storm to subside.
Home comforts? Yes please!
You have probably taken chocolate Digestives and Tetley tea for granted, and I can’t blame you; they’ve always been there, so easily accessible, but, in the words of Passenger: you ‘Only know you love her when you let her go’. Take Digestives, Dairy milk (because American chocolate is ‘meh’), and tonnes of tea bags, tonnes, a whole suitcase full (okay, I may have gone slightly overboard, but you get the gist).
Studying isn’t everything!
I know, I know…employment prospects and house prices aren’t great and we need at least a 2:1 to be able to compete in the job market, blah blah blah, but hear me out. This is your ‘Study Abroad’ year not just your ‘Study’ year. Know your capabilities and do what you need to in order to get your target grade, but don’t spend all your time holed up indoors, with only your text books as friends, otherwise you might as well be at home. And if you’re like me and you only need to pass your year abroad — go nuts!
But don’t leave your essays to the last minute. Not good for the stress levels (not that I’m talking from experience or anything).
Make a ‘to see’ list!
I didn’t do this, but I had a rough idea of places I’d like to go and some of them were decided by my location; Boston and New York were only a coach ride away. One of my friends was desperate to hike the national parks and Nashville was a ‘to see’ for me (that rhymes hee hee), so we combined the two on our travels and I actually ended up enjoying the national parks more than Nashville! So definitely have an idea of things you want to see so that you can plan and have something to look forward to, but make it a flexible list; sometimes the best experiences are unexpected, which leads me to my next point….
Throw away expectations!
Let them be gone with the wind, in the rear-view mirror, because if you try to hold on to expectations they will still climb out the car window, drag you with them, and you’ll both find yourselves clinging desperately to the bumper with the constant threat that you’ll let go and end up mulch under the car behind you…I won’t bore you with more gory imagery, I think you get my point. In the words of Elsa: ‘Let it go’. Let go of any preconceived notions about how this year is going to be. Sit in the car, buckle your seat-belt and embrace the ride. Parts will be bumpy, parts will be smooth, you will make wrong turns and have to re-route, but be patient, be present; you’ve got an amazing view ahead of you, and you’re going to pick up some pretty awesome hitch hikers, so turn up the radio and drive.
… and there are loads more tips; I could go on forever, but I won’t. Try to make the most of whatever your experience is. There is so much you will learn on your own, about yourself, how capable you are and about the world. Go and enjoy!
Also, please use sun cream. Please.