Sunday, June 5, 2016

Four Practical Study Abroad Tips for a Great Experience

In this post, I’m going to provide some tips for studying abroad that will improve your experience and make things easier in the long run. Some of these tips are things that I learned by not doing myself, and wishing I had done, or by doing myself and realizing that they made a big difference. Please note that these aren’t one-size-fits-all recommendations; know yourself and your goals for studying abroad when deciding whether to heed my advice. Let’s get going.

1.     1. Know the ins-and-outs of your city before arriving

When you are deciding where to study, it’s a great idea to create a list of prioritized criteria. For example, if a nearby airport is a must for you, make sure the cities you’re considering have one. I was fortunate, because I came to realize many of the things that made Madrid a perfect study abroad spot for me after the fact. To provide examples, I’m going to discuss some of the things that I really came to appreciate about my host city, but remember that these are things that were great for me. You need to do some soul-searching yourself and think about what’s going to allow you yourself to have an awesome experience.
            First of all, Madrid has a prime location in Spain. Situated in the center of the country, it’s manageable to travel to any Spanish city without needing to fly or take a high-speed train. For people living in the far south of the country, traveling to Barcelona or somewhere else in the north is quite a long trip, and vice versa. Be aware of other cities or sites you’d like to see in relation to the location of your city of choice when deciding.
The ease of transportation in Madrid was incredible. This goes for all levels: within the city, to other cities in Spain, and to other countries in Europe. With the national airport just a half hour metro ride from my apartment, I never had to fly out of anywhere else. I can’t stress how convenient this is, especially if you are someone who is going to be traveling most weekends.
Next, the Spaniards in Madrid spoke a very neutral Spanish, and were always willing to speak it. This is something I was well aware of before arriving, yet it was still a great feature of the city. If you’re hoping to learn the language, be aware of the accent or even dialect spoken in your city of choice. This isn’t to say that certain accents or dialects are better than others, but it could be the difference between you understanding the language and not understanding a thing. It also depends how you want to speak, and how you want to sound when you speak. Language is extremely dynamic, and can change even from city to city, so do some research on how the people of your desired city talk. For example, in Barcelona, the official language is Catalan, which has similarities with Spanish, but is really a different language altogether. This region of Spain also has a strong independence movement; so many people aren’t exactly keen to speak Spanish, and even prefer speaking English to Spanish-speaking visitors. Therefore, it can be difficult to practice the language. So if language learning is something you’re interested in, keep this in mind.
Finally, there were seemingly endless things to do in Madrid, which kept me busy (and also made procrastination easy) all semester. There are tons of cool cafes and bars to check out, a great theater and musical scene, plenty of green space and beautiful parks, world-class museums, awesome shopping, nearby cities when you want to get away, and much more. I don’t need to explain the value of having a fun and interesting city to live in, and most popular study abroad cities have plenty to offer, but consider your unique interests when researching. For example, as someone who loves to be outside and stay active, having Retiro Park and plenty of other green space in the middle of an otherwise urban jungle proved to be priceless.
These are just a few ideas of criteria to consider when choosing a city, presented along with my personal examples in Madrid. I didn’t apply them to Madrid so you could look for a similar city, but so you could see how this worked out for me. Spending some time thinking about these things on the front end will make your trip far better in the long run.

2.      2. If you’re looking to learn the language, and learn it well, do a homestay or stay in a residence hall/apartment with natives

This is something I learned by not doing, and while I wouldn’t say I regret not living with Spanish-speakers, it definitely would have helped with learning the language. There are of course plenty of opportunities to practice outside of home, but the real value of living with native-speakers is not just that it facilitates speaking the language, but that it discourages, even prevents, you from speaking English. Half of the battle of learning a language is learning the language itself—the grammar, vocab, expressions, etc.—and applying them in conversation. But the other half is getting in the frame of mind of speaking a language, which requires using that language exclusively as much as possible. Living with native-speakers is great for this. It’s also a fantastic way to learn more about the culture and the natives, which is arguably the best part of studying abroad.
            Now, I would be remiss to leave out some of the potential downsides of doing a homestay, which is living with a native family. First, you’re on the family’s schedule, which means you are expected to be present at meals unless you notify them. Obviously, this also means your meals are prepared for you, which can be great or a sense of anxiety, depending on your specific needs and dietary choices. There’s a good chance that your homestay is located further from the center of the city—families tend to live in quieter neighborhoods away from the hustle and bustle. I talked with people who didn’t mind this at all, and to others who really disliked having to take a long metro ride all of the time. I had yet other friends who got a great location for their homestay and loved it. This shouldn’t impede you from doing one, but it’s something to keep in mind. Finally, don’t think that you’ll be tied down in your host city every weekend, unable to travel, because of choosing a homestay. Everyone I knew in Madrid who lived with a family was able to travel as much as they wanted.
            The residence hall or apartment with natives or native-speakers is a great middle ground option. You have complete independence, but will likely still be speaking the language very well. An added benefit of this is that you’re exposed to the modern usage of the language. By talking with people your age, you’ll learn how to speak more naturally and informally.

3.     3. Create a budget and prioritize the big things

Establishing a budget before you leave is very important for two reasons: (1) you want to be able to do everything you want to do and (2) you don’t want to go completely broke trying to do it. There are plenty of methods for budgeting, so I won’t get into that here, but I would highly recommend setting aside money for big-ticket items, like travel, first. Begin looking up transportation and lodging prices for the places you want to visit and make financial space fir these costs. Towards the end of my trip, I began running low on money and didn’t travel as much as I could have in the last couple months, which could have been avoided with smarter budgeting (although being “trapped” in Madrid wasn’t too bad either). This also lets you know what kind of lifestyle you can live while you’re in your host city. If you know you want to travel a lot and it’s taking up a good portion of your budget, then you can cut back on the routine costs like eating out and buying clothes.

4.     4. Journal as often as possible

As we all know, from losing our phones daily to forgetting someone’s name ten seconds after you meet them, our minds and memories are quite fallible. Additionally, research shows that when we recall memories, we inevitably reconstruct them, changing little details each time until they’re almost unrecognizable from the original. So don’t trust your noggin to store all of the memories and thoughts you have while you’re traveling. I highly recommend frequent journaling to record all of these things. I would aim to write daily, even if it’s just a few sentences about something you did that day, but a couple times a week or at least a weekly journal will do the job, too. Besides acting as an external hard drive, journaling also encourages an awareness of what you’re experiencing on your trip. Living in a new country is a blur and it’s hard to digest things on the fly, but writing about them helps as it’s akin to thinking out loud. After a journal session, you may come to realize that you’re getting a little too comfortable in your routine and that you need to do some more exploring and shake things up. Or it may just help you realize how much you’re learning and growing along the way. Regardless, journaling is a great idea for your trip.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these four tips! If you have any questions about something I didn’t cover here, please comment or reach out to me at

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