Are you ready for studying abroad?
You may have your student visa sorted and feel ready to go… but there are definitely a few things I wish I’d known about before packing part of my life away and hopping on a plane to study abroad in England. From the realities of culture shock, to perceptions of America, to the change in water – here are the things your school’s study abroad office may not completely prepare you for when studying abroad!
1. Culture Shock
Culture shock is very real, and I’m sure you’ve heard about it at least once. You’ll definitely feel some essence of culture shock no matter where you go. Your entire routine is being uprooted, and depending on what program you choose, you’ll probably be living alone in a foreign country.
The smallest of changes will startle you and set you into a panic. Flashback to when I had a small meltdown in the bathroom at a shopping mall in England because I couldn’t figure out how to flush the toilet… or the very big meltdown I had at the local ASDA grocery store.
Even in a country as similar as England, everything feels different. It can be exhilarating and scary in equal measure. Just relax, breathe, and know that it’ll pass. You’ll quickly adjust to everything, and before you know it you’ll have cultivated a whole new routine (and then come home to reverse culture shock).
2. Be respectful and realize that you’re not in your home country anymore
Culture shock occurs because you’re in a different culture! Expect that and embrace it. Don’t be rude to people because they do things differently. You’re a guest in their country. People who say studying abroad changed their life aren’t being hyperbolic. It opens your mind to different cultures, people, and ways of life. Be empathetic and enjoy the experience. It will make you a better person.
3. It might be hard to make new friends at first
This will definitely depend on what country you study in – some cultures are very friendly, while others are more reserved. English people are not very friendly, at least not in comparison to Americans. I’m not saying they’re mean – just less outgoing. This made it difficult to make friends at first. Americans are usually eager to make new friends and friendly to new people (even the introverted ones). English people have a reputation for being a bit more standoffish and quiet.
It’s interesting though because my roommate is from Panama and she often complains about how unfriendly Americans are compared to people in Latin America. They’re more physically affectionate – giving hugs and kisses on the cheek to complete strangers, whereas Americans are not likely to be as intimate. So there’s definitely a spectrum of cultural friendliness and social nuances. Research the country you’re visiting and prepare for it.
A side note to this: not everyone shakes hands as a greeting. I had many awkward encounters where someone would just stare at my hand in confusion. My advice? Introduce yourself and wait to see if the other person initiates any type of physical contact.
4. The water may be different
Super random, but I talked about this in one of the journal entries I wrote while in England. The water softness and hardness may change depending where you go. It’s likely to be harder if you’re close to a large city. Reading, England is very close to London, so the water was incredibly hard.
It tastes different, and it will affect your hair. I bought some Lush shampoo to help counteract the chemicals from the water. And, much to my friends’ amusement, I rinsed my hair with filtered water after washing it. You don’t need to wash it with filtered water, just pour a little bit over your head at the end of your shower. I had long hair, and one normal sized water bottle usually lasted a month.
5. School is important, but traveling and experiences are more important
This isn’t a free pass to fail all your classes, but don’t fret about grades as much as you would at your home school. Do well, attend classes, but remember why you’re studying abroad. You’re going to learn 100x more from your cultural experiences abroad than anything they’ll teach you in the classroom.
6. Don’t over-pack
My next post will completely focus on packing tips for studying abroad, but for now just remember this: you probably don’t need it. If you haven’t worn it in the past month (and don’t need it for the weather), then don’t pack it. Leave room for the stuff you’ll inevitably buy while abroad.
7. Not everyone speaks English, and that’s okay
I studied in England, so this obviously wasn’t a pressing concern most of the time. However, I did travel to countries where English wasn’t the first language like France, Czech Republic, Germany, and others. Most people in big cities will speak some English, especially in European countries. English is a popular lingua franca, but don’t expect or demand everyone to speak it. People working in small businesses and smaller cities may not know a lick of English, and that’s okay. You’re in their country.
Be polite, use hand motions and google translate as needed.
8. Try not be super touristy
That’s not to say you shouldn’t take lots of photos and go to tourist destinations, but try to be more inconspicuous than the generic tourist. Honestly, I’m directing this mostly at my fellow Americans. We have a notoriously big ego – try and keep that at home. If you’ve never been abroad, you may not be aware of this… but we don’t have the greatest reputation, especially right now. So be humble, respectful, and open-minded. Defy our bad reputation and show the people you meet abroad that all Americans aren’t what they expect.
9. Slum it when you travel around
Stay tuned for a more detailed post on my tips for traveling around Europe frugally, but here are some simple, top tips to get started: book hostels, sleep in airports, use Google flights, pack entirely in a carry-on, and sit separately from your friends on flights.
The more money you save, the more destinations and sites you can visit.
10. Cherish every moment and go with the flow
You’ll probably miss your year abroad every day after it ends, so live in the moment and let things happen. Don’t overthink it, just enjoy it.