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Making the Most of Your Experience

We hope your semester is going well and that you're having a rewarding, educational, and enjoyable time abroad. We look forward to hearing about your experiences. Now that your program is underway, you're probably settling into your classes, have made some new friendships and have gotten out a bit to explore.

We've put together what we consider our top ten tips for making the most of your education abroad experience. Take a few minutes to look over this list as we think you'll find it helpful. Of course we understand that each program is different and that you each have your individual goals for this experience abroad. But carefully consider how these tips might apply to your situation and maybe even further enrich your remaining time abroad. It will be over before you know it!

1. Make a friend.
Many students tell us when they return to campus that making friends with host nationals was not easy to do. In fact, many report that they simply didn't make even one local friend with whom they plan to stay in contact. Some students have even gone so far as to say that "they" did not want to make friends with "us". Please keep in mind that socialization patterns are different across cultures and the way one goes about developing and nurturing a friendship can be quite different from here at home. If you're having trouble making local friends, think about the intercultural nuances in your approach.

2. Write a story, at least one.
Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites have become common with education abroad participants. Most students keep a journal while abroad and find they read it and re-read it in the months and years after they return. This is a great way to record your activities and impressions, and remember the many ways in which your experience abroad affected you. But have you considered writing a narrative about one memorable encounter, an event that stands out as an "Aha!" moment, and submitting it, along with a photo or two, for publication? There are numerous quality publications now for education abroad students, such as Transitions Abroad and Abroad View. By writing about day-to-day observations, you can deepen your understanding of the underlying cultural system that gives sense to those events. Go ahead, get published!

3. Travel, but not every weekend.
Go on, explore the area, see the sights, try new things! But don't forget why you chose to study abroad where you did. Get to know the people in your host community. How do they structure their lives? What concerns are they facing? What makes them happy? Seek to interact with those you might normally not meet, such as the senior population, non-profit groups, minority populations, etc.

4. Break away from the flock.
The "US ghetto", "flock" or the "One hundred legged American" are all metaphors regularly applied to U.S. students abroad these days, as students move about in groups, seemingly of one body with multiple legs. Are you finding it hard to break away and form relationships within the host culture? Are you getting caught up in gripe sessions that focus on what's wrong with the host culture? It is not easy to break away from the safety of the group, but give it a whirl, you'll be glad you did.

5. Live like a local student.
Students often inform us that they spent more money during their first weeks abroad than for the rest of the time combined! After the general expense of settling in, students learn with time and experience how to live like local students. Shopping, eating and socializing with local students is surely the best way to control costs and as an added bonus you'll get to see and do things that you'd never have access to as a tourist. As the adage goes, avoid having an "American experience in the vicinity of local events".

6. Show appreciation.
Leaving a gratuity, sending a thank you card or offering a kind word are all typical ways to express our appreciation here in the United States. Showing appreciation in a different culture might require a new approach. In some cultures, for example, gift giving is very important. How do people where you're studying show their appreciation? Using the language appropriately, observing societal norms and expectations, and following established protocols can demonstrate your appreciation.

7. Involve your parents, but don't depend on them.
You've jumped over many hurdles to be where you are now, including sorting through piles of pre-departure paperwork, maintaining good grades, and careful academic planning. If you're like most students, your family has been very involved and helpful to you throughout this process. Our advice to you now is to view your family as advisors, mentors, or consultants but refrain from using them as assistants, secretaries or trouble shooters. How do local students seek support?

8. Culture shock is not bad.
Adjusting to a new culture certainly has its emotional ups and downs. Remember your first days abroad when everything was new, exciting, different and fascinating? After a while, it may become difficult to assimilate to the new culture maybe even difficult to know what is appropriate and what is not. Working through these challenges means that you are moving away from being a tourist toward having more meaningful engagement with the culture. As difficult as it can be, this is a time for you to consider your own values, assumptions and beliefs and to explore how they are being challenged by your new experiences. Keep in mind that adjustment depends largely on the individual, degree of cultural difference (and perceptions of similarity) and other situational factors.

9. Take the culture as a subject of academic study.
Traveling, learning the local language, and pursuing outside social interests are just some of the many ways you can enjoy your time abroad. But keep in mind that your academic courses are also a great way to pursue in-depth knowledge of your host culture. Become a specialist in some area of the culture! Don't be satisfied by writing a paper on the contemporary politics of the place where you're studying and not interview a local politician, for example. If you're taking a regional economics course, be sure to visit one or two local businesses, a corporation and a non-profit organization. If you have the opportunity, don't miss out on studying alongside local students by enrolling directly in a local institution.

10. Develop a new perspective.
Quite often the most important things you need to know about a culture, no one ever tells you. Through time, experience and keen observation, however, you'll begin to discover the cultural knowledge people are using to organize their behavior. What values, attitudes and assumptions inform that behavior? Try to discover the worldviews of those in the host culture by putting aside your own predetermined notions of the way the world is or should be. Challenge your definitions of discrimination and prejudice. What significance do these issues have for those in the host culture?


Source of this section:  Ogden, A. (2007, Winter). The view from the veranda: Understanding today's colonial student. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 15, 35-56.