Do you hear that? The pitter-patter of footsteps in hallways? Coins being slotted into vending machines? Student reps conspiring over a cauldron to prepare humiliating icebreaker activities?
Double, double, toil and trouble, force students to tell each other where they see themselves in five years, bubble.
These whispers can only mean one thing: a new school semester – and year! – is approaching, and therefore a new round of Study Abroad. If some of you chooks are about to leave the pen to explore the cafeterias and classrooms of a faraway land, this article should help you start off on the right foot.
Breathe Through the Bureaucracy
Fair warning: your enrolment process is most likely going to be a headache. Before I left for my exchange program in France, I was required to nominate potential courses from the catalogue for an advisor’s approval at my home university. I got the green light, but when I made it to Europe and signed into my account on official enrolment day, every single course option had changed. The emails I then had to send my advisor, negotiating a different program, were frustrating at best. Your home university may not demand the same requirement with the same lack of foresight, but you’re bound to come face to face with some sort of enrolment hassle.
My advice here is to plan your courses with a grain of salt, because they’re likely to change. Note down the credit and subject requirements you’ll need to fulfill, and be prepared to move quickly and decisively when class slots are eventually released.
Go for the Gold
A semester or year abroad is the perfect excuse to step out of your comfort zone. I would advise you not to simply pick the easiest or most familiar courses you can find, because – with all due respect – that sounds kinda boring. I understand that for some of you, your academic results from your semester abroad will be important when you return to school back home, so you want to ensure you’re maintaining a high average. Even still, consider choosing classes that will push you just a little, either academically or in terms of format or language of instruction.
The classes I actually did the best in were the most challenging or left-of-field. I exceled in them because I had to work hard in order to understand what the hell was going on, was actually engaged in the content because it was new and different, and therefore motivated to learn as much as I could while I had the chance.
I’m sure some of you are mostly looking forward to your exchange program to a.) party and b.) escape from the very academia I’m raving on about. That’s cool, too; you do you. But if you’re keen to balance the party abroad with the actual study abroad, U CAN HAVE IT ALL. Back yourself and take some weird course in your second language. Yes – you’ll be slightly terrified standing up to give an oral exam, yes – you’ll be lost for the first two weeks, but you’ll thank yourself later. As Hilary Duff says in the woefully underrated A Cinderella Story, ‘Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.’ (Apparently the baseball legend Babe Ruth said this first, but like… #teamhilary.)
Find a Balance
I’m about to make Step 2 Alyssa look like a hypocrite, but make sure you don’t pile up your course load too crazily. You’ll want to still have time to see the sun during your studies, otherwise the whole ‘abroad’ thing will become pretty redundant. What I did to avoid constant burnout was treat myself with a bludge course. I’m not sure if this term is used outside of Australia, but basically to ‘bludge’ means to – as urban dictionary puts it – ‘evade work,’ slack off. So, basically a bludge subject is one you can breeze through with the attitude of having your feet up on the seat in front of you, chewin’ on a toothpick.
For my semester abroad, I took 5 French courses, which was great because my language skills drAstiCAlly improved and I made actual, living, breathing French friends (crazy, I know.) But I also took one course in English – my bludge class. I used it almost exclusively to conduct online shopping and take quizzes to find out which type of cleaning product I was based off who I chose as my favourite Kardashian, etc. It was beautiful. And it balanced perfectly with the French class on Auschwitz I took which at one point saw me borrow 13 books from the library to get through one week’s coursework alone.
Participate in Those Cheesy Orientation Programs
There are eight words in the English language that send shivers down my spine every time I hear them: “Let’s go around the room and present ourselves.” I hate the attention, I hate how forced it is, I hate having to come up with some weird anecdotal phrase that will apparently tell everyone all they need to know about me. But the welcome week I enrolled in at the start of my exchange semester, despite being full of the above situation, brought some incredible people into my life, so every awkward “I have two brothers and a fat cat” was worth it. These events are the easiest way to meet people who are in the same situation as you, who’ll have the same questions about rent and transport etc., and who you’ll most likely be seeing in many of your classes. So consider the quizzes and games as awkward means to a wonderful end. If you haven’t seen your life flash before your eyes before taking your turn in a game of two truths and a lie, did you even study abroad?
If your program doesn’t offer any comprehensive welcome events, join Facebook groups. There are always Facebook groups. When the planet blows up leaving nothing but ash, Facebook groups will rise from it.
Volunteer for Group Projects
I know, I know, you think I’m crazy. Group projects are the worst because there’s always an unequal distribution of work and you can never co-ordinate schedules. I know. But if you’re the only foreigner in the class and find yourself wedged between two local students for a group assignment, *cash register noise to signal hitting the jackpot*. You just got yourself two sources to practice your languages skills, two experts on local life, and maybe two friends if you play your cards right. There were a few classes I picked partly because I saw group projects as a listed element in the course blurb. And yeah, ya better believe it worked.
Lean Into the Locals
If you’re keen to make local friends, do what the locals do to make friends with each other. Speak to people before, after, and – let’s be honest – during class, attend parties run by student groups, sign up for societies and the like. You can even approach people and ask them what the best sandwich to buy from the cafeteria is, or even where to find a certain building (some exaggerated cluelessness here won’t hurt.) Who knows where it could lead!
This stuff can be scary, I know, but take a page out of Shia LaBoeuf’s book and Just Do It. Even just once. One party, or one seminar, or one meeting with one student society. What’s the worst that can happen? You speak to someone and they end up hating you? (Seems unlikely, but let’s roll with it.) Okay, so they hate you, and pretty soon you’ll never see them again, and college is temporary, and you don’t care what they think anyway because you’re living your best life. So… remind me, what’s the worst that can happen?
Your study abroad experience could end up being many things: life-changing, exciting, disappointing, a one-way ticket to becoming that insufferable friend who returns to their home country blabbering about nothing but study abroad 24/7 (guiiiillty!)
I hope that all of you, wherever you’re headed, will get plenty of growth, adventure, and joy out of your program. And I hope these tips help to set you on your way.
Comment below if you have unanswered questions about study abroad!