I have been an international student for a long time. I’ve also experienced the short-term “study abroad” that so American students try today, where you spend a semester or summer in another country, usually on a business internship, perfecting foreign language skills, or both. Here are 5 essential pieces of information and advice that I wish I’d had during my first year abroad.
1) Make an effort to find some people from the same part of the world as you, or who share your language and/or culture. This seems counter-intuitive: many blogs about studying abroad will urge you to be open and meet new people from a variety of cultures. This was my approach my first year as an international student: I was in search of difference and wanted badly to meet people who are really different. What I didn’t realize is that it can be overwhelming to deal with people who have very little in common with you all at one. It makes sense to have a network of people from a similar background or who share some aspect of your culture that you can rely on when you are feeling too much like an outsider. I suggest looking up culture-oriented groups on campus, asking around before you leave whether any of your friends know people in the region you’ll be studying, and looking for events/places that celebrate your heritage.
2) Don’t get too comfortable with “your own kind”. In the previous paragraph, I encourage people to have a network of familiar faces and places to rely on when the feeling of being an outsider gets overwhelming. That said, one of the most amazing things about studying abroad is the potential to meet so many people from an array of different, fascinating backgrounds in a small place. Therefore, I suggest spending a couple of hours every day making friends with people who aren’t like you, who don’t think or look like you, and whom you don’t immediately feel comfortable with. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. This is how a new place becomes a second home. I advise living with roommates if this is an option your first year (share a flat if you need some privacy), joining groups geared towards a hobby/interest, signing up to volunteer, and saying yes to invitations.
3) Don’t get caught up in nostalgia and glorifying the place/culture you came from. This is a huge danger for people who get too comfy with other international students from the same region as they are from. I see it time and time again: they feel unsure about and disoriented by the place they’ve just moved to, take refuge in the familiar, and start finding reasons to justify their unwillingness to engage the foreign culture. People who couldn’t wait to leave their home towns start making it over until their memories are so glossed over that they look like pages in a storybook. Stop making unfair comparisons between the place you left and place you’re in now, and stop expecting this place to have the same customs and values. I had a couple of friends from India who never stopped complaining about how in India, everyone had a sit-down lunch and there were plates of rice and fragrant curries prepared. They were so focused on how the U.S. is not like India that they missed out on potential good things about eating lunch differently: that there is something delightful about a casual sandwich eaten outside, that you can be creative and healthy by making your own lunch, and you could try an array of options.
4) Don’t forget. On the other hand, you shouldn’t forget where you came from and disdain the food, clothes, movies and music you grew up with. My favorite thing about study abroad programs is the potential for cultural exchange in a short period of time. You should be discovering new ways to live by keeping an open mind, and you should also be willing to share things about your life at home with the new friends you make who are curious and interested. Sometimes, it’s OK to be nostalgic and make your favorite meal from home or choose a restaurant with a cuisine you know well. As long as you don’t overindulge in nostalgia, it’s fine to use these little things as comfort and as a way of sharing with others.
5) Don’t underestimate the value of relationships, old and new. I see international and exchange students fall into two traps. Either they spend all their time on Skype talking to old friends and family, and turning down invitations to join groups, meet new people and establish a new circle. Or, they became caught up in a whirlwind of social events with people they barely know and neglect to stay in touch with their parents, siblings, and oldest friends. I’ve been guilty of both. As a new international student, I was so excited about all the people I was meeting that I neglected my core relationships. Don’t. These are the people you have always known, who will sustain you through the hard times and with whom you want to share the best and worst of your new adventures. However, don’t feel guilty about not spending hours every day on the phone/on Skype – you do need to live where you are. You need to make time to turn those acquaintances into friends. I’ve moved to new cities several times, and there is nothing more depressing than wanting to go out on a Friday night and not being able to call a soul. So lay the groundwork for good times. Make small talk, be approachable, join groups, ask people you are interested in to go out, make the effort to initiate. Some of life’s best experiences are made to be shared.
As you can see from this post, each point might seem to contradict the previous one, but I don’t think it does. At the heart of the travel/study abroad experience is the tension between who you were and who you want to become.