In my short life, I have had the opportunity to travel several times, and I truly believe what my mom says: you learn more in one month in a different country than in a year in college. At the end of the day, what truly matters during your study abroad experience is what you were able to absorb culturally instead of what you learned in the classroom. Twenty years from now, chances are you won’t remember a thing your calculus professor said, but you will remember your amazing tour guide in Spain, or the time you lost your wallet and you didn’t speak the language in Portugal.
Usually you hear stuff about how traveling abroad “expands your horizons” and “magnifies your view of the world”, but you won’t know how true, or how deep, these statements are until you experience it. I read somewhere not to be surprised or disappointed if you’re absolutely miserable the first week of your study abroad program. I know I was, at least. It’s not that I had never been to the States before; it’s just that I had never been all by myself in a dorm room in a state where I knew absolutely no one. But it gets better, and besides, it’s not like your first week anywhere defines the rest of your adventure. And, just like any experience, it is all about what you make of it.
Studying abroad is having the opportunity to be who you truly are, or who you always wanted to be. It may sound super cliché and exaggerated, but it’s still very true. Few things are more beautiful than being in a place where you know no one and no one knows you. Make it count.
Buy stuff. If you want something and you like it, buy it (Granted it’s something special from the region you’re visiting, not something you can get at home). You might buy something and regret it for like, two days. But I still remember the octopus shirt I saw in Bocas del Toro, Panama after a community service trip and decided not to buy over a year ago. And believe me, those thirty bucks I didn’t want to spend aren’t making me any richer right now.
Eat well. And by that, I don’t mean go out and eat at super fancy restaurants. Eat what the locals eat. Taste pupusas in El Salvador and churrasco in Argentina. See for yourself how Chinese, Italian, or Mexican food really are.
Learn to enjoy your own company, because chances are, you will be by yourself a lot.
Expect nothing. Delete every single stereotype you have in your mind about the place you’re about to visit because it’s probably wrong. This is coming from the girl who has heard stuff like “I thought you all lived in huts” and “I thought Panama was a little town”.
Don’t put yourself down for the little things. You might have lost fifty euros, but tomorrow is a new day. Yeah, it sucks, but you’re somewhere exotic and interesting and you don’t know if you’ll ever come back, so stop worrying. Or you might have spent $18 in a fancy drink last night, and now you feel super stupid, but you’ll be fine. Both stories that happened to me.
Be amazed. The most wonderful moment in my life was stepping out of the tour bus and seeing the Eiffel Tower at night for the first time. Don’t try to act cool, or nonchalant, or whatever. Run towards the statue you’ve been waiting your whole life to see. Take a gazillion pictures. Open your eyes and try to absorb everything. Enjoy the “am I dreaming?” feeling you get when you see the Great Wall of China, or the Buckingham Palace, or the Vatican.
Remember you’re actually there to study, but also remember that in twenty years, what really matters are the amazing people you met and the experiences you had.