Some international students have bittersweet memories instead of telling a success story from their first semester abroad. When they return home, they are being asked to sum up their intercultural experience and the answers are often mysteriously vague:
Not much, right? Where did all the motivation and the neatly planned life changing goals disappear?
Most international students have accomplished a thing or two while studying abroad, but in hindsight it is clear as day: they were far behind their potential or own expectations. Time went by fast and when the semester was over, they kept wondering: what the actual heck has happened?
If they could go back in time, they would bring down the stars from the sky, but it just did not work out that well the first time. International students have an army of reasons why they did not get a real taste of the planned or desired success during their studies abroad.
'I was concentrating too much on academics and learning languages.'
'Studying abroad was not for me, I should have stayed at home'
'I could not afford having fun abroad, it is a game for rich kids.'
'I just got started, my semester abroad was too short.'
'I was rarely sober enough to do something that you can call success'
Plain and simple: variety is a top predictor of an amazing study abroad experience.
If you don't explore new things abroad, you inevitably limit your study abroad experience, your academic and professional fulfillment, and ultimately you limit your personal development. No one has enough time, some does not have enough money to spend and everyone has personal issues.
In any case, you can make the most of studying abroad, if you really want to. Learn how!
Prepare for studying abroad
Ideally you did a decent amount of preparation before going to your host country. In case you did not research your host country, host culture or set study abroad goals, well, do it now. Even if you are in the middle of your semester abroad, you can still catch up: look for the differences in your host culture that may trigger culture shock and get started with goal setting for your international studies.
You have to set realistic goals and expectations, but you can only do that if you know a thing or two about your host country and host institution. Some people say that preparation eliminates all the surprise. False. Planning helps you to minimize problems abroad and allows you to live up to your potential.
Think about it for a second. Do you want to get in any kind of trouble abroad? Do you want to get hurt? Not really, right? On the other hand do you want to explore as many new things as possible? Do you want a meaningful study abroad experience? We only like surprises, if we secretly wanted them to happen.
Preparing for your study abroad experience will not reduce the positive surprises abroad: feelings will be new and unexpected things will happen, life can guarantee that for you. Whatmore, preparation allows you to explore your opportunities abroad in advance, so by the time you arrive to your host country, you don't waste your time on finding out what you can do - you get started with full throttle right away.
Many international students experience at least one major mental meltdown abroad and it is difficult for them to find the restart button. The key to avoid such deep mental issues is to lead an active, but balanced life abroad. If you are curious whether you are still in control over your life abroad, ask yourself the following questions:
If you answered YES to any of these questions, you need to think about changing your behavior in order to regain command over your life. The best solution is to get back to basics, think about your long term plans and adjust your study abroad plan to serve your vision. Rationalize your spending, set priorities and stick to your budget. Revise your study techniques, ask for help from fellow students and professors. Think about other ways of having fun then just drinking. Adjust your goals and act now!
Flexible adjustment abroad
There is always a hard way and a smart way when we talk about adjusting to a new lifestyle.
Some international students choose the hard way and recognize the need for adjustment only months after starting their semester abroad. By that time the damage is already done and it seems pointless to do anything, because their international studies are over in two weeks anyways.
Your life gets a lot easier if you choose to adapt while studying abroad. Most often you need to optimize your language learning goals abroad, reschedule some trips and deal with the uncertainty of internship starting dates and job offers. Some international students experience a sharp turn in their educational plans that may even lead to changing faculty.
It is totally up to you, but never stick to obviously failed plans and do not make impulsive decisions. Cool down. Think about how to modify your overall study abroad strategy to reach your goals in life.
Stereotype free cultural openness
When you start to collect information about cultural preparation, you surely bump into a bunch of stereotypes. Read or listen to all kinds of stories, but keep in mind that you have to take these rumors with a grain of salt. The moment you connect with local and international students, you have to do away with all your stereotypes, that way you can let in new information faster.
First impression matters. You should give a chance to everyone to introduce themselves without you judging them in advance. In exchange for that you can hope that others will not judge you either. Cultural differences might blind you first, so it could be a good idea to allow new acquaintances another shot to make a first impression.
So what about third chances? Friendships and relationships rarely work if the first two encounters were negative, why would a culturally different setting make it any different? Never say never, but do not waste your time. How do you know if you are wasting your time with someone? Easy. If someone lies to you, talks behind your back, causes you any kind of pain (intentionally), you better cross that person off of your study abroad friend list.
Making friends and building your professional network should be your top priorities abroad.
International education presents you with a unique opportunity to make dozens of intercultural friends only in a matter of days. Most people in your international student group live relatively close to each other in the host city, have more or less the same educational background, attend the same courses, share the same ambition and some higher goals in life.
Most of them are doers, so they lead an active life: making friends abroad is in their veins. They organize international dinners, sit in a bar, walk in the host city, travel together and go for all night long parties. Try all of these above at least once! Friendships are being born or getting stronger if you keep in touch with fellow students through multiple channels while studying abroad together.
As for networking, you should connect with your professors, career office, international office, attend conferences, guest lectures and exhibitions in the field of your professional interest. Be polite and show hundred percent competence and respect towards corporate or academic partners. Remember that networking does not have to be impersonal, in fact, the winners of this game are those, who truly understand the personal needs of their professional partners. Look for the human values in people who represent their organization and connect with them on the personal level as well.
We did not mention 'fellow students' above in the professional connections for a reason. You should not focus on networking in the international student community. It is very transparent if you are talking with someone only for the sake of professional benefits, even if it is mutually profitable. You should try to connect on the personal level, and if you share enough common traits, interests, i.e. you like each other as people, the need for professional connection comes almost naturally.
Academic efficiency – what do grades measure?
Some study abroad programs are very competitive and surely you do not want to lose your scholarship or fail a course. But some international students are overly obsessed with getting good grades. Grades are important for your university, your future employers and your parents.
But what is important for you?
You should be gaining international experience abroad, something that you cannot get at home. Do work hard and get the best grades possible, but do not let your grades control your life. Don't study for the sake of getting excellent marks. Do it for yourself, to further your knowledge and life experience. The academic grading system is not designed to measure your personal qualities.
You should know exactly when you are working toward your goals and when you are just using studying as an excuse to sit isolated. Grades are important, but you may regret sitting behind your desk forever instead of diving into the international student life.
End the shortsightedness
A shortsighted approach to maximize one single aspect of your international student life may turn into a colossal disappointment. Also, the study abroad experience cannot be summarized with a 'carpe diem' or a 'you live only once' slogan. Language learning, cultural immersion, academics, networking, traveling and partying should all get a fair share of your time while studying abroad.
In order to understand the international student lifestyle you need to experience new things abroad. Trying various activities, that could be totally out of your character, may seem 'unnatural' at first glance, but 'unnatural' is the new natural on your study abroad program. As soon as you go out and expand your horizons, you give yourself a chance to enjoy things in life you never knew about before.
You crossed the border of your country, now it is time to break down the walls of your comfort zone.
Journey of your life
In the age of couchsurfing, cheap youth hostels, low cost airlines, one-euro bus rides, shared car services you are rather limited by your time than your financial situation. Some international students spend more time on making up excuses than exploring their host country.
Don't be like that.
Traveling is one of the key pillars of your study abroad program. Going for a walk in your host city is free and trips to precities and regional bus rides are often ridiculously cheap. The above mentioned budget airlines and accommodation options may allow you to travel in the region for peanuts. You should always keep an open eye for affordable traveling opportunities abroad!
Consider the introduction week obligatory
The first week is often an orientation or introduction week abroad. In case your host institution does not offer such programs, you have to get together with international students and organize it yourselves. The general idea here is to get to know dozens of international and local students in the shortest time possible and to get the feel of your host city and campus.
Some intro week programs may cost a fortune (in your eyes), but always attend what you can afford or are offered for free. Beach parties and sport days are not for athletes only. Pub crawling is not for party animals only. Museums and campus tours are not for nerds only. Connect and explore on your first week abroad, because passing on this opportunity may haunt you for a long time.
Everything has a price, but there is a universal currency that can never empty your bank account.
That is time.
Observing locals' behavior on the streets, in shops (not in a creepy way) and engaging with students, professors in your host culture cost you nothing, but time. Watch and learn. Do not judge, instead try to understand the local culture – there is a reason why they do what they do. The same rules apply to your international friends on your studies abroad. Pay attention to every small detail and make an effort to solve the infinite intercultural puzzle: ask questions all the time but don't annoy people unnecessarily (read their reactions and be polite).
Learning foreign languages abroad does not only aid your speaking and writing skills, but also enhances your cultural understanding – that is an invaluable intercultural experience. You have to take the time to learn some grammar, read books and articles to build a wider vocabulary, but most importantly, you have to push yourself to practice foreign languages with native speakers.
In your host country you may find dozens of language buddies to improve your foreign language skills. Language courses may cost 10, 20, 50 USD for every 45 minutes at home, so free language exchange can save a decent amount of money while you are gaining valuable language skills.
Approach professors, local and international students. Share your life goals with them and be sure to ask about their future plans. If you see a chance for future cooperation, don't be shy, go ahead and tell how you could help each other later on. One caveat though: do not make empty promises or say what they want to hear just to get close to someone, because building a relationship on a lie is never a good idea.
Do your research and select the most lucrative opportunities to gain international professional experience. By committing to 2-3 multicultural academic or business projects while studying abroad, you can actually understand a lot better what you want in life. At the same time you build a high potential international network and improve your cross-cultural competence.
You have a lot of opportunities while studying abroad, for instance you may:
Keep in mind that you are not doing all these just to land a well-paying job after studying abroad. You should be working hard abroad in order to explore your opportunities, test your professional potential and ultimately become a better person.
+1 Always ask for help if needed
Problems can escalate quickly in an unfamiliar environment where you may lack the usual physical and emotional support. If you experience deep emotional pain, such as homesickness or study abroad depression, then you should talk about it with your parents, close friends abroad or at home. In case it is getting out of hand, always contact your academic advisor or the local international office.
Almost every international student experiences such negative feelings abroad, so you are not alone. Friends and parents can help a lot, but student advisors are there for you too, they know exactly how to help you. There is no shame in accepting the help you need to make your life better abroad.
If you got into trouble abroad: you are in physical danger, got hurt or had a conflict with foreign authorities, then the best thing to do is to contact your embassy or consulate in the host country and notify your host institution. At the same time, depending on the nature of the problem, you may need to report the incident to authorities in the host country and get in touch with your home university and insurance provider too.
Your experience is more complete if you prepare for reverse culture shock in advance.