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10 things you should know before studying abroad

By Gustav Anderson, Study Abroad Contributor

Reader, I would like to begin this article with a moment of meditative reflection. If you would be so kind, please go drink some lukewarm tap water, sit upon the floor with legs crossed and stare up at the vast emptiness of your ceiling. Close your eyes. Picture studying abroad. Can you picture it: the Leaning Tower of Pisa, cars driving on the wrong side of the road, Baguettes, and more? Surely, you have already given the whole process much thought; then again, maybe you have not. It does not matter. I am here to tell you, dearest reader, that there are undoubtedly many things you have never considered about the study abroad experience.

In the spring of 2020, I studied abroad in Torino, Italy. There were several things that I wished I’d have understood before going abroad that would have better prepared me mentally and logistically. While there is no way to fully prepare yourself for spending an entire semester in a foreign country, I can at least shed some light on a few things to consider. Here are 10 things to know before studying abroad. 

Not all programs will have the classes you need.

While this might not come as a surprise to some, for others like myself, it was indeed a reality check. When I first started to think of different countries I wanted to study in, I never stopped to consider that class requirements might limit my options. After scanning many programs throughout Europe, I realized that only a handful of them offered classes in my major that would substitute for University of Maine classes. Sometimes this is not a problem if you can afford to put off some required credits for a semester. If you do not have this luxury, be open to all kinds of different locations as they may suit your academic needs better than your first choice.

Classes abroad are not easy.

While on the subject of academics, I feel it is important to mention that the courses you will take while abroad are by no means a cakewalk. While it is true that cultural exploration is your primary focus while abroad, you are still very much a student working towards a degree. Despite what you may hear, classes abroad are just as challenging as they are back home. In some ways, they are almost more difficult in that you need to properly manage your schedule to both travel and study successfully. Take into account how much studying will impact your travels and plan accordingly, or you’ll risk homework piling up, missing an exam or even failing a class.

Europe is larger than you think.

Picture me, a naive college student circa September 2019. I had it deep in my mind that I was going to travel everywhere by bus and avoid airline costs because everything in Europe is so close together. Right? No, so very wrong. Major cities in Europe are in fact very far apart and most definitely require commutes through the air. I was crushed once I saw that a bus ride from Torino to Naples was a whopping 13 hours — so much for a quick weekend trip. But it is good to keep in mind that flights are usually very cheap in Europe, so taking a bus or train might not always be the most affordable option.

Phone plans are complicated.

Be prepared for this in particular. Unless you buy an international plan (these are usually ludicrously expensive and unreliable) through your current provider, you’ll need to buy a new SIM card for your phone when you arrive. These SIM cards can be purchased in person from any foreign provider and usually come with complicated payment plans and ridiculous apps. Do research on cell providers in your country before you arrive to save yourself a headache. Also, make sure to save your U.S. SIM card in a safe place for when you return. 

Talk to your bank.

The last thing you want is for your hometown bank teller to cancel your debit card while you are trying to withdraw cash from an ATM in a sketchy back alley filled with rats in Lyon on your first night abroad. You’ve never stepped foot out of your state, and all of a sudden, your card is in France? That’s not going to fly. Have a sit-down meeting with your bank before leaving and make sure they know where you are going and for how long. You don’t want them to think your information has been stolen. Also, be sure to discuss common banking fees that you’ll have to deal with while traveling. 

English is very common.

I’m really just talking about Europe. As an American, I had the privilege of only really needing to speak one language to get by. In Europe, however, the average EU citizen usually knows multiple languages because of all the cultural integration and exchange that happens between nations in such close proximity. As a result, English is everywhere, and if one of your goals is to pick up a second language through immersion, you might have a harder time. It is both comforting and frustrating — trust me.

You’ll need to adjust your wardrobe.

Rest assured that 50% of your current closet will most likely not cut it in whatever country you decide to study in. You’ll need to consider the weather as well as cultural trends in order to pick out some new outfits. For instance, leave the printed t-shirts and ballcaps at home if you are considering Italy unless you want to feel incredibly dressed down on every occasion. Adjusting your wardrobe isn’t only about style either; make sure to pack light. Yes, I’m talking about those grey corduroys and white Air Force 1s you never wear but always think you need. The worst thing to do is overpack and then realize you don’t wear half the things you are lugging around.

You will really stand out.

Adjusting your wardrobe only helps so much. Unfortunately, no matter how hard I tried, the locals almost always recognized me as an American college student. Between my camera, a backpack, and outfits that tried but just barely missed the mark, I, along with my peers, looked very out-of-place in most situations. Because of this, people tried to take advantage of us on multiple occasions. At the same time, however, many people were very kind and helpful. Just be attentive to your surroundings, and never buy bracelets from overly talkative people on the street.

The peer pressure is very real.

The people in your program are your biggest support group. The bond that comes from jointly acclimating to a foreign culture is incredibly strong — so strong in fact that it will sometimes influence you in ways it shouldn’t. Peer pressure to travel every single weekend with large groups is extremely common and hard to avoid. While planned group trips like this are some of the best, make sure to occasionally go places of personal interest to you. Most importantly, do not be pressured into traveling far every weekend; explore your home city extensively. After all, you chose it for a reason.

You will miss out on experiences back home. 

Studying abroad was undoubtedly the best decision of my life. I will forever cherish the friendships and memories I made traveling across Europe. However, I did sacrifice a significant amount of time that could have been spent at UMaine. College only lasts a brief four years, making every semester vital for deepening friendships and maximizing campus impact. While I gained some phenomenal experiences abroad, I lost time with my friends back in Maine who I might never see again after graduation. Life continues back home while you are abroad — this is something you need to understand before making the decision to leave.

While there certainly are some things to consider before embarking on your next trip, there is no better time to explore the world than in college. Studying abroad was the highlight of my college experience, and I would not trade it for anything. Keep in mind the 10 things I have mentioned — I am sure they will serve you well wherever you end up.

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