The first days of most study abroad programs are naturally challenging for international students.
The lifestyle of international students is inherently intense and in the beginning it is difficult to keep up with it. Some feel like they entered another universe, where the law of physics does not apply anymore and they totally lose control. Many international students just go where the wind blows, they are drifting helplessly and by the time they wake up, the semester is over and they can't make up for the missed opportunities.
You have limited time to make the most of your study abroad experience, but you can succeed by being consciously active abroad from the first moment. One day you wake up and it is your last week. It is very inconvenient to compress the whole study abroad experience into your last days. Really, it's no fun at all. The feeling of emptiness and disappointment is almost always granted if you go down that road.
Just like every student says: 'if I had one more day to prepare for that exam' you hear international students saying: 'I wish I could spend just one more month abroad, so I could do so much more traveling, go to parties, make more local friends or practice foreign languages'.
So give a kickstart to your international studies on your first week abroad, that way you set the tone for the whole study abroad program!
So you just arrived to a foreign country and you wonder how to get started with your life.
Your first steps abroad matter a lot, so watch your steps. So much uncertainty, so many things to explore: it feels weird and exciting at the same time. You see new places and meet new people every day, it feels like you are seeing with the eyes of someone else.
A local buddy team representative or your host probably meets you at the airport or bus/train station to help you to get to your accommodation. There can always be complications (late hours, traffic jam, buddy/host got sick), so if no one can meet you, you have to be equipped with info to find your way to your new home.
1. Make the first call
You may give a sign of life after you landed or arrived to the center of your host city, but definitely send a text or make a call home when you got to your place. Your family, boyfriend, girlfriend, best friends want to know that you are alive. Anyways, you promised them a million times you would write them as soon as possible.
2. Do your first walkthrough
Go and check out your new home and the neighborhood. You should do your first walkthrough either with your host, with fellow students or alone (depending on where you live and who is there). Your number one goal is to map the place, but at the same time this is your chance to see if there is any damage in the flat or house. If you see anything that seems broken (especially in your room), you should ask politely 'what happened there?' – that way you can avoid future misunderstandings. The kitchen and bathroom are usually the most sensitive areas, but don't forget to check your bed too. Don't jump on it like in a comedy, but ask if you could sit or lie on it.
Put your luggage in your room, but don't be in a rush to unpack it, there are far more important things to do on your first day abroad. Anyways, it often happens that people want to or have to move out the next day, so instead of the constant packing, it is simpler to 'live from your luggage' for 2-3 days.
3. Ask how the house „works”
You may see some facilities that are unknown to you or there might be specific rules when using certain kitchen appliances, or there is a trick to flush the toilet. There is an amazing technique to get information: ask questions.
Even if it feels silly in the moment, ask your questions in the beginning.
It can get a thousand times more awkward when you realise at the end of the semester that you have been using the bidet the wrong way the whole time.
4. Get to know the people around you
This step is crucial. Get to know your host, roommates, flatmates and neighbours. Go over, knock on their doors and introduce yourself, even if you know two phrases in a given language and have to use sign language. Try and make plans for the day together. You should be:
5. Go for a city tour
Probably you joined an online group where you already engaged in a conversation with fellow international students or you have a local buddy who helps you. If you did not do any networking in advance, you can still meet people instantly, for example you have your host, roommates or flatmates. Worst case worst go ahead and make some friends on meetup.com or couchsurfing.com.
Ask them if they want to explore the city together with you. If you are lucky, a member of your host family takes you around by car or you can join a group of fellow international students. The more the merrier. Visit the most famous monuments, try some restaurants or sit in a park. It's all about absorbing the new experience.
6. Go local
Hopefully you did do your research about the host country. Try some local dishes, observe the street signs, type of trees, cars, people, dresses and architecture. Long story short, get lost in the host culture. You want to get lost mostly figuratively, because getting lost literally is not as fun as it is in the movies. Seek for cultural challenges abroad and truly let in the experience.
7. Explore your campus
Arrange a meeting with some local or international students and make a campus tour. Check out some classrooms, audience rooms, take a walk in the garden if they have one. Ask where to find the track field, gym, swimming pool or the golf course - though don't expect to have them all. If the campus building is in the center, go and explore the neighbor streets and shops.
8. Dinner plans
Offer your place (ask permission if you are living with someone) for an international dinner. If you are not a kitchen fairy, agree on a place where you can have a dinner together. It really does not matter where you go the first time, you should rather focus on getting to know the people. You will try the local culinary wonders throughout the semester anyways.
First things first: the first 1-2 weeks are not about setting up your new routine or giving your top performance. It is about exploring what the international student lifestyle can give you. You do have to make plans, but you should focus on variety and get to know as many people as possible.
1. Buy basic stuff
Get some basic supplies: toiletries, cleaning materials, must have kitchen appliances and food for the next 2-3 days. It is always nice to have something in the fridge when you get back to your place from an excursion or a night out.
2. Join the orientation week
If your host institution organized an orientation day or a whole week, try to participate, and we are not talking about the registration only. Attend the facultative programs, because the people you meet on your first week are most likely your friends for the semester or for life. It can get more difficult to find new friends as weeks go by, because most people will have their clicks already.
3. Join student associations
Student groups at your host institution may stand for various causes: sports, environment, intercultural community, subject or career specific extracurricular activities. Learn about your opportunities and join something you like. Don't do it because it's trendy, do it because you find it interesting.
4.Join sports clubs outside campus
If you live far from the campus or you have no chance to get into the student groups you wanted, then search for opportunities in your host city. A local gym, salsa or yoga club – try something you never did before - often you get the first lesson for free. If you attend 2-3 sessions a week, it helps you to set up a new routine in your life.
You do need some stable points abroad, sports are a great way to establish that minimum stability.
5. Join local language exchange clubs
Couchsurfing, meetup, local language clubs – you name it. Find and attend international meetings, language learning oriented events or find a local buddy to exchange languages. This is the fast lane to meet young academics who know their own culture very well and are opened to hear about other cultures as well.
6. Look for a job
Working 10-15 hours a week may have some positive effects while studying abroad. International students often find student jobs at the host institution, but it's totally fine to work in a local bar or shop as well. Student jobs abroad present a good opportunity to get in touch with locals and really understand the every day life of the average Joe of your host culture.
The measure of success can be very subjective, we know that, so these are suggestions, not the rules of the universe. You don't have to do everything above, maybe you don't need a job at all, but don't stop till you find something that keeps you busy and happy while studying abroad!
Practice shows that international students that lead an active life abroad in the first week are much more satisfied with their overall experience. Things change faster abroad, you change faster abroad – so you better try many things in the beginning to find out early on what do you want exactly. This way you can surely make the most of studying abroad.