It’s been seven years since my study abroad experience in Florence, Italy. In some respects it seems just like yesterday. I still recall the tribulations of leaving the midwest in the middle of a snowstorm, the silly photos taken in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, my week-long spring break trip to Greece and the endless amounts of pasta I ate. I remember living in awe of everything around me for five months. Each day was new, exciting and different. I have no regrets about my time abroad. However, as I look back, there are certain things that I would have done differently.
Since this was my first international experience, I chose to live with other Americans from my program in an apartment. At the time, I wanted some level of security and comfort when I arrived in this strange, unfamiliar place. While I am thankful for the people I met, I realize now that living with other Americans hindered my ability to fully immerse myself in the Italian culture. I was in Italy, yet I was surrounded by Americans. This made it extremely difficult to stray outside of my American bubble and actually meet natives.
As a result, I would advise others to choose a homestay. You are exposed to the culture – the language, the food, the traditions when you live with a family. Being abroad – whether traveling or studying – really is about straying from your life at home. Don’t let a little fear hold you back.
You will be fluent in another language by the time you leave, right? Wrong! Unless you make a concerted effort to place yourself in situations where you will be forced to speak the language, you may realize that learning another language is not as easy as simply living in another country. Often on study abroad programs you are surrounded by other Americans. And, depending on where you are studying, many locals likely speak English as well. In fact, they’ll want to practice their English with you, so you need to be persistent and sometimes request that English NOT be spoken.
If nothing else, try to find a language exchange partner. You can practice speaking his language and he can then practice speaking English. People do appreciate when you speak, or at least try to speak, their native tongue.
Splurge a Little
Ok, you’re a dirt poor college student with barely a cent to spare. While abroad you want to travel as much as your bank account will allow and thus, that often means you need to sacrifice a bit. I understand. When I traveled I would load up on bread and jars of peanut butter and jelly. I stayed in hostels rather than fancy hotels and I barely purchased anything that wasn’t a necessity. Living like a vagabond is sometimes exciting. But, remember that it’s ok to occasionally splurge every once in a while. You certainly don’t want to look back on this experience years later and realize that you missed out on something purely because you were too budget conscious. After eating scraps day after day or staying in cramped dorm-like hostel rooms, it’s ok to spend a little on yourself. You’ll be grateful you did!
Do as the Locals
In a foreign land it isn’t always easy to change your diet, your personal style or your mannerisms. You are an individual, after all. However, out of respect for the country, sometimes it is not only easier, but more respectful to do as the locals. I learned this when I went into a local hair salon for a quick trim. I needed nothing more and nothing else…just a snip off the ends. Unfortunately, since I didn’t want to spend the money to get my hair washed (which was an added expense), I tried to explain that I only wanted my hair cut. I assumed this would be no problem, considering the price for a wash and a cut were listed separately. I was wrong. I could immediately tell that the hair stylist was irritated with me and I can only assume he thought I was being a stubborn American. I now know better.
Pack like a Backpacker, Dress like a Local
Being a midwest girl, I have a pretty simple fashion style. Jeans and sweatshirts are my go-to outfit in the winter. I’ve never worn a pair of stilettos and probably never will. So, I was fortunate to be able to pack five months worth of clothes into a suitcase and a medium-sized backpack. My east coast classmates, however, arrived with 2-3 suitcases each. I was astounded. They apparently hadn’t been forewarned that most places in Italy DON’T have elevators.
But to them, fashion was important. They needed to pack six pairs of shoes and an outfit for each night. While I believe this is excessive, I would advise students to find middle ground. Pack lightly, but be mindful of the local fashion trends. You’ll help to assimilate into the culture a bit more if you make an effort to dress like the natives. Plus, it just might make YOU feel better to get out of your sweatpants every once in a while!
Studying abroad is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Never again will you be so willing to sleep in 8-person dorm-style hostels, travel day and night on a train or eat bread and jelly for breakfast, lunch and dinner. So, be sure to do it right!