I recently packed up my suitcases and said goodbye to the United States. In response to a flurry of questions as to how I felt about leaving, my answer was consistent — I wasn’t really sure.
During my last few weeks in the U.S., I tried to live in the moment, be present and practice gratitude. I know I’m going to miss studying abroad, and I have learned so much. I built resilience and maturity and had many memorable experiences. While I am still figuring out my complex feelings about leaving the U.S., a place I have always dreamed of living in, here are some of my top tips to make the most of your semester or year abroad.
1) Establish a support system
As with any new experience, it’s important to have people you trust to guide and support you through it. During the first few weeks of your time abroad, you will find yourself doing a lot of adjusting, and having a familiar voice from home does wonders to alleviate fear or loneliness.
Some of the times I cherished the most were speaking to my friends back home on FaceTime, sending them pictures and videos of my experiences and being honest about my feelings while adjusting to Claremont.
While I eventually felt settled in the U.S., I still wish I had established a more concrete support system before I left the U.K. Intentionality is key, and being open about your desire for friends, family members or teachers at your home university to check in on you can help during the highs and lows of your time abroad.
2) Be open to all people
Going abroad during my third year of study meant I had already had a two-year crash course in meeting people and making friends. However, my year abroad introduced me to people from all around the world, and interacting with them made me realize how easy it is to stay within homogenous communities at university, and not be open to people of diverse backgrounds.
Studying abroad is a great opportunity to rectify that. Being surrounded by so many different students educates you and widens your perception of the world. My fondest memories of being abroad include late night conversations with my roommate about the African American experience in the U.S. As much as I had read and seen, nothing compared to her sharing her personal experiences.
3) Document your experience and try new things
Whether it’s travel blogs, YouTube channels or Instagram accounts, it’s important to document your study abroad experience so your memories can be revisited in the future.
Being intentional about documenting your experience is also an incentive to try new things. I’m currently in the process of creating a scrapbook, full of photos and little gratitude lists I made throughout my time abroad. You don’t have to share your documentation; keeping little videos and pictures for yourself and loved ones is a great and simple way to cherish all your memories.
4) Do your research
Google is free. However, sometimes you just don’t know what questions to ask. Here are a few things to consider: What are the living costs? Are the food and accommodations expensive? Regarding academics: How are the semesters organized in your study abroad program? What is the workload like? How will you be assessed and how will your grades translate back to your home college?
It’s also worth thinking about the culture and accessibility of the city in which you’ll be studying. What is the transportation like? Are there good barbers or places where you can get your hair cut or styled? What is the culture of your university or country? Is it very liberal or very conservative? The answers to these questions can help your experience.
Finances are an important consideration for your time abroad. It’s important to save or have extra money available so you can travel and get involved in different activities and events. In case of safety and medical emergencies, a little extra cash never hurts.
Furthermore, don’t let finances stop you from trying to study abroad if that experience is something you want. Both your home college and study abroad university may offer loans or grants, so do your research and try to make the most of your opportunities.
If you’re considering working while abroad, remember that you may not get a job instantly. If possible, have some money immediately available while you wait. Also, be aware of the rules and policies in your study abroad country when it comes to working as an international student.
It’s also important to budget. One way to do this is by taking advantage of free trips run by clubs and organizations. Have fun in the university and its surrounding areas — you don’t always have to travel far to see or experience something new.
6) Don’t compare your abroad experience to someone else’s
One of the best pieces of advice I received before studying abroad was “if everyone seems to be having the time of their lives in the first few weeks of being abroad, they’re probably lying.”
It’s easy to keep up pretenses, as social media allows for that to be widely accepted. While everyone’s experience abroad is different, there will definitely be highs and lows. You won’t be happy all the time. You will find some things difficult. You will miss home.
But you will also likely settle down, make some great connections, have amazing experiences and really grow as a person. Your study abroad experience is what you make of it, and as one of my friends says, you have to wake up and decide what kind of day you’re going to have, regardless of what happens.
I don’t know how long it will take for me to fully realize that I have lived out one of my childhood dreams — not only to be in America, but to have lived in California and traveled to New York. I have also written my own study abroad column and started a podcast. My year abroad was a good challenge. But like a lot of challenges, it’s easy to ignore what’s been achieved until it’s over. Not only did I visit America, I saw and I conquered.
Itunu Abolarinwa is TSL’s study abroad columnist. She is a writer passionate about creating content that challenges thoughts and initiates change, and just finished her third year of study of political science and international relations. Abolarinwa is a student at the University of Birmingham who studied abroad at Pitzer College.