This is the part of the blog where I get ~preachy~. Whoops. But this list may actually be helpful to you if you’re looking to study abroad and wondering what the frack you’re actually getting yourself into.
· Tips for anyone planning to study abroad:
o You’re going to want to pack up most of your wardrobe and bring it with you. Don’t do that, you fumbling fool. What you don’t realize is that you’ll probably wear the same five outfits- so half the things you’ll bring with you will remain untouched. Pack light, pack smart. Worst case scenario, you can buy essentials wherever you’re going. If you want a comprehensive packing list (for a 4-month trip), hmu.
o Have a clear idea of why you’re trying to go and what you’re trying to accomplish. Coming from the Academy (where everything is fast-paced and fairly stressful), the more relaxed nature of studying abroad will be nice at first. And then you’ll probably get bored and find yourself watching conspiracy theory videos until three in the morning because you can. It might be nice for a while, but it can also be incredibly frustrating. In a place without much structure, it can be super helpful to outline concrete, measurable (i.e. SMART) goals for yourself- even though no one is breathing down your neck, you can still make big steps in your own development. That can extend to everything from working out to reading or taking up a hobby you’ve wanted to try but didn’t have the time. It’s easy to get comfortable and complacent- but you’ll walk away wishing you’d used your time more efficiently.
o Do plenty of research about where you’re going. Chances are, you’ll be spending months in a place that is drastically different from home. You’ll be overwhelmed by how new everything feels for at least a few weeks. In order to more adequately situate yourself, it’s incredibly helpful to know about the country you’ll be living in. Everything from basic greetings and phrases, customs and history will feel like a much-needed foundation. Plus you’ll minimize accidentally offending someone or looking like a complete and utter idiot. Which are, in my opinion, major pluses.
|A view of my neighborhood in Daugavpils, |
arguably unlike anywhere in the United States
o Take time for yourself. There’s going to be a lot going on around you- new people to meet, a new language to try and learn, a new city to navigate. When those things catch up to you and you feel out of place, you might start to freak out, which is perfectly normal. That’s where self-care comes in. Check in on yourself, because I can practically guarantee you won’t be making the most of your potential experiences if you’re not taking care of yourself mentally and physically.
|Enjoy this joyful picture of me|
wearing a helmet.
o Know what you’re eating. This may be one of the most controversial points on the list. One of the most exciting parts of coming to a new part of the world and experiencing the culture is all the amazing food you get to eat. You might have a host family that feeds you food you’ve never seen in your life, and all of this will be new and awesome and (hopefully), very tasty. However, I will warn you that a nonchalant attitude towards food, in combination with probably working out less, can have some unintended consequences. Yes, you can enjoy the culture of the place you’re in, but (for lots of us), you don’t need to try two new cheesecake flavors a day. Most everyone on my trip has gained weight, which is not a big deal for some people, but it important if you might have long-term physical goals in that realm.
o Reach out to the people who are important in your life, but balance that with staying in the moment. I had a problem earlier this semester where I was reaching out to a heck of a lot of people and trying to find out how school was going- until one of them nicely told me to stop worrying and be focused on where I was. There’s a reason you’ve gone away from your school, and it’s alright to focus primarily on what’s going on in your day-to-day life. Yes, always reach out to people you love and support, but don’t be afraid to create distance to reflect on what your experiences are showing you (outside of your conventional social sphere).
o Track how much you’re spending! And find smart ways to save money! Lorde, this one is massive. Some of the places you might be going are expensive. And you might be getting a stipend or relying on your paycheck, but there are some costs that’ll impact your day-to-day that many of us probably haven’t had to think about before (sorry, this next bit gets a bit more Academy-specific). You’ll have to consider things like additional food costs, maybe a gym membership and travel costs if you’re planning to go outside whatever city you’re staying in. Those items stack up, and it can be dangerous to swipe your card like there’s no care in the world. If you want to save money, find alternatives for day-to-day necessities. That might mean cooking your lunches with a weekly set of groceries or having the self-control not to but that fourth scarf (or box of cookies) you were eyeing. If you have a stipend, chances are you’ll have more money in your pocket than you’ve ever had before, but there’s no reason not to make smart choices and have that money for other things later on.
o Find facilities that are important to you-like a gym. One of the things that has helped me the most has been forming a routine, and working out is one critical component. Whether you lift, swim, run or haze yourself on the elliptical, knowing you have a place to go can be a motivator, and it can also keep you accountable.
|That one time we got a bunch of people to play volleyball|
on what was most likely private property. Twas fine.
o Find out when you’re going to have extended amounts of free time-and use it to your advantage. As part of our program, we had the opportunity to travel outside Latvia and visit Poland, Lithuania and Estonia. Those trips wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t proactive about finding free time in our schedule and talking to our program about traveling. This may, of course, be specific to my program, but can still be helpful. If you have the chance to travel to other places/countries, TAKE IT. Seriously, I will scream about it until I’m blue in the face. Many of us won’t be returning to the part of the world in which we’re studying, so use your time wisely. I cringe as I write this (mostly because I’ll sound like that spoiled, nauseatingly annoying girl who went abroad) when I say that traveling can change your perspective. Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone and check out more in the part of the world you’re living in.
|Vilnius, Lithuania- one of the|
cities we had the chance to visit
o Journal if that’s something you’re into. Times flies- I swear it was the middle of October like yesterday. To keep track of your reflections, observations, doubts, confusions, lessons learned, etc. journaling can be incredibly helpful. It helps you focus on what’s most important in your daily interactions, and can help you find important (see also: funny) stories to bring back with you.
o Talk to people who have been where you’re going. You can do research online, but it’s also incredibly insightful to talk to someone who’s lived there before. Plus, if they’re Americans, they can give you information that will prepare you for some of the elements of cultural shock you’ll be experiencing. Talking with someone can help you find some of their lessons learned and recommendations without having to undergo the same experiences (i.e. make the same mistakes) that they did.
o Know the regional customs so that you can respectfully interact with your host family (if you have one). Really this goes for just about anyone you’ll be interacting with, from your teachers to the cashier at the grocery store. Nothing is more awkward than making a fool of yourself or hurting someone’s feelings when you were unaware of the implications of your actions. If you want to not be an asshole, read up on how to be respectful of people of different ages, sexes, ranks (military academies, y’all know), and so on. It’ll save you more than a few internal debates and struggles.
o Have a proper way to communicate. Whether it’s a regional SIM card or an international plan, make sure you have a way to reach people and be reached. Do some research on what you’ll need to buy or change based on what you need (like if you’re alright relying on Wi-Fi for most of your communications). People who have stayed wherever you’re going can probably give the best advice on what worked for them.
|Totally random picture of|
Mindaugus (my favorite) and I
o Make some local friends. As much as you can explore by yourself, you’ll enrich your experience when you have people who know the city where you’re living. Whether it’s finding that hole-in-the-wall restaurant you never knew you needed in your life (Café Imbir, may she rest in peace), or knowing where the locals hangout, the inside scoop can be some prime knowledge. It can also make your new place of residence feel more like a home and less like an out-of-control semester-long experiment.
o Prepare to be frustrated and homesick. Chances are, if you’re trying to study abroad it’s because you want to step out of your comfort zone. There are a lot of powerful lessons to be learned from throwing yourself into something new, but there are a few repercussions you’re unlikely to dodge. You’ll probably feel enamored with such a new place at first, but some of the frictions and frustrations you’ll feel manifest in that type of panic that makes you seek out what you know (America!). Those emotions are normal, and in a lot of cases, will pass relatively quickly. It’s helpful to remember that if you are studying abroad, you’ve been gifted this massive opportunity, and using it to its full potential will bring a sense of content that is worth some of those ickier feelings.
o Know that you’re representing Americans (I know it’s cheesy but it’s true). Some of the people you’ll be interacting with have never met an American before, and most of what they’ll base their expectations on comes from media (TV shows, the news, etc.). There are some stereotypes about Americans out there that are less than awesome, and if you care about the image of the United States, be cognizant of your actions and their consequences. You might be thinking that there are moments in which people aren’t watching you, but you’d be surprised by how often that actually isn’t the case.
o Invest time in building relationships with the people with you. I’ve made some incredible friends in the last few months, even with *gasp* West Point cadets. The group that you’re with (assuming you’re not alone) can be a source of community and comfort in a new and probably strange place. They can provide insight into everything from their institutions back home, to the oddest of interactions they’ve had with their host families (like the horrific account of one of the students being forced to drink microwaved beer when he was sick. Gross on so many levels.). When you say goodbye to whatever place you’re calling home, in many cases you’ll also be saying goodbye to the people who made it special, so cherish the time you have with them. Ewww gross, feelings.
Thank you for attending my TED Talk (rant, it’s a rant), and if you have questions or more advice, feel free to write to me. Also, if anyone out there has studied abroad before and has some more tips, leave them in the comments below. Thanks, darlins.