For many, the idea of attending a study abroad program in a foreign country for x amount of months is intimidating. If you’ve never really traveled or been abroad, those feeling are very normal, but there is nothing to fear. If you frame it the right way, studying abroad can and will be one of the best times of your life. Keep reading for all my tips on everything you need to know about study abroad.
Background information about my study abroad experience
I studied in Rome, Italy for 4 months during my Spring semester of my Sophomore year. This program is through my home university, so a good portion of my student body also studies there. About 60% of students in Rome with me were from my home university and the other 40% were from different universities across the U.S. Despite the fact that a lot of students were already at school in Chicago with me, I knew only a handful of people going in and wasn’t really close to any of them. That being said, I had to form new friendships in Rome.
I had taken a 101-level Italian class before study abroad and also completed a 102 course while in Rome. With that being said, I felt like I did not know enough of the language to have conversations in Italian. I am part Italian and still have family in Italy, so it would have been helpful to know a bit more of the language when I went to visit them.
This also wasn’t my first time studying abroad. I took a month after my Sophomore year of high school to study in England. I am also a seasoned traveler. My biggest worries going into study abroad is that I would miss home and not make friends since I had never been away for so long.
DISCLAIMER: Unfortunately, I know nothing about the visa process because I am also an EU citizen. If you’re #blessed like me, you won’t have to deal with any of this. If you need a visa, your prospective university should be able to walk you through the process. Sorry, I’m not much help with that part of study abroad!
I’m going to get the boring stuff out of the way first. Feel free to skip over sections you’re not interested in!
Academics abroad can be different for everyone, even if you’re at the same university. I took all core/prerequisite subjects, such as Greek history, women in literature, Catholic religion, Italian, and theater. None of these relate to my major but are required for me to graduate. On the other hand, a few of my friends took major-related classes and those were a lot more difficult. And let’s be honest: nobody wants to be doing loads of homework when you could be eating gelato.
My advice, especially if you’re an underclassman still, is to save your easier classes (101 or 201 level) for when you study abroad. You don’t need to push yourself to take insanely difficult classes because a lot of the learning during study abroad takes place outside of the classroom (like at the Roman Forum on a Saturday afternoon with friends).
Anyone who says making friends isn’t a daunting task is lying to themselves (or they just naturally are a social magnet). For me, making friends is always daunting but you can never let fear stop you, especially while studying abroad. My advice is to just put yourself out there and be yourself. Talk to new people, sit with them at lunch, and maybe plan a weekend trip. The best way to bond is on study abroad because you are all in the same situation: away from home, in a foreign country, trying to make friends and see new things.
The friends I took my first trip away from Rome with became some of my best friends. In the same sense, I also took trips where I knew the group I was with just didn’t click as well. Through it all, I promise you will have incredible experiences and make at least one lifelong friend.
If you’re studying in Europe it is crazy easy to travel during the semester. Here’s some advice on how to plan a trip:
- Talk to your friends and figure out what their weekends look like. I planned most of my trips far in advance and a handful at the last minute. Once you have a group of friends that want to go to, let’s say Paris, set up a Facebook messaging group and title it “Paris” so you remember what that chat is about.
- Look into flights using skyscanner.com, this will help you compare prices of every airline and find the cheapest option. The airline in Europe that I liked the best was Ryan Air.
- If you’re going somewhere by train use trainline.eu (I suggest setting up an account and downloading the app so all your tickets are in one place).
- Now, you need to book somewhere to stay! I mainly stayed in hostels and Airbnbs. For hostels, you can use either hostelworld.com or hostels.com.
- If you want to get really intense, write out an itinerary. When I made these they didn’t consist of a set plan, but how much the trip would cost, things we could do in Paris, information about our hostels, flights, etc.
- Before every trip, you should make sure you have the proper attire for the country you’re visiting. Check the weather and also be aware of cultural differences. Bring a carry-on bag (I preferred using a rolling bag) and a backpack. A fanny pack or a small crossbody purse is also a good idea. The products linked are good, sturdy options without being super expensive. Truthfully, I was a little less practical and carried a Kate Spade backpack that’s strap ended up breaking on my last day in Europe. While traveling, it’s better to have durable equipment then ending up with broken stuff!
It happens to everyone, it’s just a matter of how you deal with it. When you’re homesick, just remember that it’s ok not to feel ok. If you need help, seek it. Never be afraid to reach out to the school because they have hosted tons of study abroad students and homesickness isn’t new to them.
Do NOT lock yourself in your dorm. The most homesick people I knew while studying abroad did that. They wouldn’t come out to eat pizza with us or sightsee in Rome after class. Instead, they spent hours on the phone with their parents or friends from home. That is not a healthy way to deal with homesickness! Of course, you should call your parents, but I’d say for no more than 15 minutes a day (maybe even less, honestly). To avoid homesickness, make a calling schedule. Every other day, check in with your parents for 15 minutes and then call your boyfriend after for 15 minutes. Just remind yourself to live in the moment!
Money, honey, it’s so funny how much money I went through during study abroad. Not including my tuition or any school expenses, I approximately spent $3,500 during my 4 months away. Obviously, it all depends on how you spend your money; I know people who spent a lot more than me and a lot less than me. If you want to read more about the approximate expenses of studying in each country, click here
It’s important to save up before your trip so get that summer job or start side hustling. If you’re worried about making your money last, just be frugal. I think that’s how I managed to go on so many trips but not spend as absorbently as most. When you go out to eat, don’t get the most expensive dish. When you’re looking into flights and trains, book one at an odd time to get a deal. Don’t feel like you need to go souvenir crazy and remember that sometimes pictures are the best souvenirs.
With everything that is happening in the world, a lot of students and parents question how safe it is to study in a foreign country. My advice is to pick a program and country where you would feel safe. If there is a lot of turmoil in a certain country, it’s probably not the best place to study. I picked Italy because it is generally very safe, my roots are there and I have family there if I needed anything, and the program had my best interest at hand. Here are some tips on how to feel safe in any country:
- Stick to populated, tourist areas. The only thing you need to worry about here is pickpocketers. A majority of students don’t seem to have a problem with this unless you are making it obvious you are a tourist. Be sure to keep your bags close to you, carry backpacks in front of you, and put crossbody bags or fanny packs under your clothing if possible.
- At night, stay away from allies or dimly lit side streets, even if you’re with a group. I made this mistake in Athens and it was really frightening. It’s helpful to have a map, not just the map on your phone.
- Try to travel with friends if possible. The sad reality is that American women, especially when they are alone, are targets for men. If you do travel alone, try to dress like a woman from that country would. I made the mistake of getting on a train in Italy by myself with a Paris sweat shirt on, no makeup, and hair in a messy bun. No Italian woman dresses like that so I stuck out like a sore thumb.
- Don’t be too trusting of strangers. It’s ok to be nice, but don’t accept invitations to go to bars with people you don’t know or anything of that sort. Also, don’t get on a stranger’s Vespa like Lizzie does in The Lizzie McGuire Movie! Bad idea! Paolo is a fictional character!
- Download an app called Safey. Our school actually made us do this. It gives you updates on what is happening in any country in the world and how safe it is at that current moment.
- Have a phone plan that allows you to call from any country and make sure you have emergency contact numbers saved. I only had a phone plan for Italy, so when I traveled I had to be on WiFi to use my phone. Not so helpful in situations where you might need help. Make sure you have a phone plan set up before you go abroad.
Studying abroad is an absolutely amazing experience, but it is important to be aware of everything I just told you. I wouldn’t change a thing about my study abroad experience and I know so many people who say the same. There is absolutely no reason to be afraid or worried. If you decide to study abroad, you’re going to see the world in a whole new light. You are going to see amazing things and beautiful places. You will meet amazing people who change your perspective. Finally, you are going to eat the most amazing meals and buy super cute clothing (a definite plus). Just remember that wherever you are, you are still living an amazing life. And when you get home everyone will be eager to see you. However, the best part is you will have gained a new appreciation for the world around you.
If you want to read more about study abroad, check out 8 Reasons to Study Abroad for a Semester
If you found this helpful, remember to pin it. You can also take a look at my other travel posts.