The thing about studying abroad is that it can seem so glamorous—and it is!
I’m someone who might make a slightly spur-of-the-moment decision while overlooking potential future challenges. And while I don’t regret my decision to study abroad at all, there are things I would’ve done differently. And there are lessons that can be learned from my experiences.
Taking the plunge
During the second semester of my sophomore year of college, my friends and I were giddy about the prospect of studying abroad. (At our school, it was the norm to go abroad during the first semester of junior year.)
I had always wanted to go to England. For one thing, the Harry Potter series is one of my all-time favorites. So how could I not be curious about King’s Cross Station and Diagon Alley? Plus, some of my musical icons happen to be the legendary members of The Beatles. I was eager to check out their stomping grounds.
Meanwhile, I was attending Wake Forest University, which sits in the small city of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. For the time being, I felt like I’d exhausted all available activities in the home of the Camel cigarette. (At least, as much as I could without the luxury of having a car on campus.) And having lived in a busy city prior to attending Wake, I missed the hustle and bustle and that great walkability that, often, big cities offer.
So I applied to a Syracuse-led program in London. One of my close friends was also applying there, and we both got in! With a good friend joining me, I wasn’t too worried about not knowing all the Syracuse students (who, as I would soon learn, comprised the bulk of the program).
I’m somewhat of an introvert anyway (I love getting my me time), so a sea of unfamiliar faces doesn’t tend to bother me (as long as I’m not forced to schmooze —that’s another story).
A turn of events
But come the end of the summer, my friend reached out to let me know that she wouldn’t be going. Surprisingly (I have a habit of reacting before allowing myself to process), I didn’t freak out. I would still be living with two girls from my college. And while I wasn’t close friends with them, at least I knew of them.
Plus, I knew I could usually get along with most people (or at least peacefully cohabit). With lots of summers spent at sleepaway camp, I had experience living with 10+ girls.
Off to London!
Finally, the day arrived. In the hazy hours of the early morning, I was en route to John F. Kennedy International Airport. As I watched the familiar Randall’s Island and East River go by, the dauntingness admittedly started to settle in. Arriving at bag check, I saw a gaggle of students, but no one I was friendly with from my school.
At the terminal, I recognized some people from Wake, but saw a much larger crowd of unfamiliar students—evidently, Syracuse students.
I—somewhat uneasily—walked onto the plane and settled into my seat, making sure I was armed with melatonin, headphones, and my Kindle (I wasn’t used to a seven-hour flight. When I think about it now, though, that seems minuscule compared to what other friends had to endure. Namely, the friends who studied in Australia).
If you’re thinking about studying abroad: make sure you equip yourself with whatever you need for a long flight. With the nerves you already may be feeling, the journey may be more unsettling if you don’t have your essentials.
Meeting the flatmates
Arriving in London, I was definitely feeling the anxiety of being in an unfamiliar environment. Despite this, my strength lay somewhere inside me. And it’s my personal belief that having even one person in your corner in this type of situation is better than none.
So, by answering another lost soul’s question, I managed to befriend a student from Syracuse—thank goodness. Phew! I had at least one buddy. (And we would stay good friends throughout the program.)
I was pleased to receive a warm welcome from my two new roommates once I arrived at the quaint flat, a mere few blocks from Hyde Park. Being in the presence of students from my school immediately helped me feel a little more at home. And while I felt jet lag encroaching on me, this was my new family. So I got to know them.
(Setting a good foundation with the new roommates was a great way to help me acclimate. I’d strongly recommend making this a priority when you’re getting ready to move in with new mates.)
Over the next few days, I was happy to see that one of my flatmates was excited, like I was, to explore London. We checked out our neighborhood restaurants and pubs, visited the Pimlico Market (just across the river from the London Eye), and became regulars at the local Sainsbury’s (similar to the Kroger).
Expecting the unexpected
Unfortunately, about a week in, my other flatmate announced that she’d be leaving. And then there were two.
This was slightly disappointing—I’m a firm believer in the fact that living with three people—versus with two—can be a game-changer. If you ever get sick of one, you’re not stuck. But luckily, classes were starting, and I’d be meeting more people.
Classes were good, but I still kind of felt a bit like an outsider. I regularly hung out with the student I met at the airport on that first day, Evan, and his flatmates. But a lot of the Syracuse students seemed to already have their friend groups established.
Looking back, I think that considering other programs (specifically, ones led by my own school) would’ve been a good idea. Having more familiar faces around me could’ve really helped me form more connections. In hindsight, I guess there’s something to be said about having a meticulous approach when deciding on a program, rather than my impulsive one.
If you’re going abroad, clear your mind of expectations. It’s great to have a bucket list and goals, but like in any situation, studying abroad may be different than what you expected.
It’ll probably do you well to toss out the expectations and have more of a “que sera, sera” attitude.
Getting comfortable in my new home
During the first couple of weeks, I got the lay of the land. I explored Hyde Park, took the tube everywhere (being used to taking the subway everywhere, this was right up my alley), and frequented the Pret a Mangers (which are all over Europe!) for coffee and a bite.
The international phone plan
One thing I overlooked before arriving in the UK was my phone plan. For some context, technology and me, together, equals a disaster. It’s like trying to act naturally when you’re up in front of the jury, your parents, after getting caught sneaking out. It just doesn’t work out.
So naturally, I neglected to think about setting up an international plan. So I had to deal with it all on my own when I got there. And what was already a challenge for me was even more overwhelming, being in an unfamiliar place.
If I were to relive the experience, I’d definitely take care of that beforehand. Basically, the more you can do to reduce potential stressors when you arrive in a new country, the better!
Adapting to long classes
In the Syracuse program, the school week was only three or four days long, which meant that classes were lo-o-ong (three hours!). I wasn’t used to this. In my high school, a typical class was, at most, an hour and fifteen minutes. And the same had mostly been true about my college classes thus far.
As it usually goes, the experience wasn’t perfect at first. I struggled to focus. And I would find myself getting incredibly drowsy after having, yet again, entertained the night owl in me the night before.
So I learned to always, always pack a snack and water. And I would allow myself whatever self-care activity that I needed to decompress after class. As for staying up too late? I won’t lie and say that I went to bed at nine o’ lock every night. But I did try to at least have a balance of late and early nights during the week. And I eventually developed a routine that worked.
It turns out, the research seems to be right—we’re often more resilient than we realize! And that’s always great to see in play.
Overall, though, familiarizing myself with my surroundings was incredibly helpful and a prerequisite for thriving abroad. If you tend to be a high-stress person, this will likely be true for you, too. It all starts with the small things. Just walk around and see what calls out to you. For me, that’s usually a few things—the park, coffee shops, and vintage shops.
Basking in the true glamor of studying abroad
Pretty soon, I was making plans with friends to meet up in different countries.
I’ll be honest. Traveling by myself from country to country made me feel pretty cool. I would take the tube from my flat in Queensway, all the way to Heathrow or Gatwick Airport and hop on my flight. I navigated the airports like a pro. And I learned that I do my best when I’m traveling alone.
I don’t have to entertain others at seven in the morning, and I can either take my time at the airport bar, or whisk straight to the gate and bury my nose in my book until boarding time.
Oktoberfest shenanigans: abroad in Munich
On the morning of Oktoberfest in Munich, we booked it to one of the “cheap,” tourist-y places to get dirndls (the traditional female costume at Oktoberfest).
If I came out of Oktoberfest learning one thing (honestly though, to say I “learned” something would be a stretch. It was a lot of shenanigans), it’s this: purchase/rent your costume beforehand.
If you wait until the last minute, like we did, you’ll likely have to wait in a long line to get your costume, and you’ll probably spend more than anticipated. (Plus, there’s a good chance you’ll be forced to experience getting slightly talked down to by the lady who fits you into the dirndl. You’ll laugh about it later.)
If you do make it to Oktoberfest and you’re with a group, get everyone’s number. And if possible, get at least one person’s location. The fest is huge, filled with rowdy mobs of people. So you can be almost certain that you’ll, at some point or another, find yourself lost or separated from your group. (Again: you’ll laugh about it later!)
Remember to eat and hydrate! It’s such an exciting day that it can be surprisingly easy to forget about the basics. But it’s a long day. And you’re on your feet for a while—so your body will be grateful for the TLC.
Enjoying the little things: abroad in Milan
While lively, iconic trips were a blast, I also found joy in the simple things.
Take, for instance, my weekend trip to Milan. I met up with my friend from high school, and instead of staying somewhere fancy, we settled on a tiny Airbnb. Despite its size, our weekend home was charming, with vintage bicycles tucked in the corner and tiny French windows with sheer curtains.
We appreciated the chance to explore the city without breaking the bank. We visited local markets, old record stores, and had the best pasta of our lives (I still crave it from time to time). And instead of spending a fortune visiting every “must-see,” we spent a lot of time just being together, catching up, admiring new, free sights.
Getting humbled: abroad in Amsterdam
Have you ever watched someone do something so seamlessly, then tried yourself and absolutely flopped? This happened to me in the wonderful city of Amsterdam.
Arriving in the colorful, canal-filled city for the first time, I was enamored with the beautiful tulips, the fusion of delicious smells, and the charming, skinny houses.
This beauty, I was expecting.
What I wasn’t expecting was the number of people traveling by bike.
As it turns out, in Amsterdam (and most Dutch cities), biking is one of the primary forms of transportation. Over time, says The Guardian, people identified biking as the cheaper, safer, quicker, and more environmentally-friendly option. As it stands, the Netherlands encompasses 22,000 miles of cycling paths!
Having been raised in a busy city, I had really only been for long bike rides in rural areas. However, I wasn’t going to back down. I had all the confidence in the world, actually! (I’ve also got a bit of a stubborn streak.) I was relatively athletic and spry, so what could go wrong?
Wow, did Amsterdam put me in my place!
Seeing people navigate the narrow bike lanes was completely different from actually being in the lane. Perpetually teetering, I strained to remain upright on my bike.
Despite my somewhat embarrassing struggle, it was both thrilling and satisfying to be one with the bikers in Amsterdam. It was awesome to have witnessed this quirky cycling corner of the world—and I felt grateful for the experience.
Feeling grateful: abroad in Venice
On the other side of the coin, I had experiences that made me feel grateful for my life back at home.
In November, I visited my friend in Venice to celebrate Friendsgiving. It was nice to celebrate with someone. Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays.
We went to the market to get the goods for our meal—pasta, cheese, and milk for mac and cheese (my friend is a vegetarian and I don’t care for the turkey), cranberries, string beans, bread, wine.
And then we went outside, only to be greeted by the flooding street!
My friend showed me to the raised platform that served as a path for people to walk on in this situation. I had never experienced this before. So again, I had an experience that took me out of my comfort zone.
But more importantly, the moment forced me to reflect on my privilege. And I think that’s something we should all do more often.
Do this…not that!
On a more lighthearted note—
On one of my favorite weekend getaways, I traveled with my boyfriend (who visited from the U.S.) to Paris. It was great. We hopped on the train, were there in two hours, and explored the cobblestone lined, hole-in-the-wall cheese shop-filled city as much as we could.
On departure morning, we were checking out cafés and coffee shops on the narrow, twisty, streets, trying to slip in one final meal.
In the most basic, American fashion, we settled on a baguette and this creamy, delicious cheese. We ate almost all of the cheese (which, if I’m being honest, should’ve lasted us some time). Paired with the thick bread and frothy, strong cappuccinos, it was a great meal. But with a cost.
See, we were trying to cram as much exploration as possible into the weekend. So we rushed to the train station, neglecting the restrooms in the station in favor of making our train.
Needless to say, it was a pretty bad train ride. Pick your pre-travel meals wisely, friends!