6 ways to make your study abroad more awesome

When I went abroad to Germany, I was pretty nervous. I would be living with a family I had never met before. I didn’t know anything about German culture. I was determined to make my trip a success, but still had some reservations.

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Being an exchange student is not a competition, but some kids definitely do better than others. Every trip is different. Some students aren’t ready to go abroad. Some familes aren’t ready to host. The organization I went through, Youth for Understanding (YFU) tried to teach us how to make our travels successful. We went through a pre-departure orientation, an arrival orientation, and even an orientation at the end of our trip– let me just say I’ve had enough icebreakers to last a lifetime.

They offered some advice, which I offer to you now. Not all exchange students have the luxury of being over-orientated like I was, so they have nothing to dispel their worries.

So, I present…

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…a list of 6 quick, messy tips!

1. Eat ALL the things!

Food is important! When you’re abroad, your host parents may cook for you, or buy food for you, or take you out to eat. If you don’t like a food, fine– but try it at least once. Your family wants to share their culture with you, and food is a huge part of that culture.

I met an Indian-American girl who became an extreme example of this when I went to Germany:

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Not that I’m saying that anyone should give up vegetarianism, especially if it’s important to you. However, be ready to try new things! Go to your country with an open mind. Remember, you’re the odd man out here. You’re going to have to adapt to your new country, just as they have to adapt to you.

2. Expect nothing.

After I announced I was going to Germany, everyone had expectations for me.

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Although I applied to go to Japan, I was sent to Germany instead. Though I was a little disappointed at the time, in retrospect it was a good thing. I’m obsessed with manga (surprise!) and I therefore had a very unrealistic view of what my Japan trip would be like.

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This might sound pessimistic, but if you go in with overly high expectations, you may be disappointed. Not all students have the best experience. Before I went to Japan, my Japanese tutor who went on the same trip frequently told me,

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And this isn’t a bad attitude, either. When you have no expectations– none at all– you can go in and appreciate every experience for what it is, instead of thinking about how much better it could be. I went to some amazing places in Germany, but I also spent a lot of time just hanging around my host family. Both ends of the spectrum, to me, were equally valuable.

3. Hang with the natives.

Exchange students tend to stick together, which makes sense. In a strange, new land, there’s a group of people who speak your language, know your background, and understand the way you think. Who are you going to gravitate towards?

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Running around and looking at famous sites is fun and all, but it doesn’t immerse you in the culture. The best way to learn about your host country is to talk to people who know it the best– the people who have lived there their entire life. At the very least, try not to be a “guest” to your host family. Help around the house, hang out, and talk to them!

Talking to natives can be a bit difficult, though, which brings me to the next two points:

4. At least attempt to learn the language

and

5. Don’t be afraid to sound like an idiot.

My German host family speaks English, so I was able to speak with them fairly well. I tried hard to learn a bit of German, though. I even purchased a phrasebook before departure. One of the phrases I still remember:

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I did became frustrated when I met people beyond my host family. Not many of my host family’s friends or relatives spoke much English.

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I did a little better when I went to Japan, since I had a slight knowledge of the language. Still, that didn’t stop me from speaking terrible Nihonglish. Some of the stuff that came out of my mouth was preeeettttyyy dumb.

Like during my homestay in Japan. I spent my homestay with another American girl, who’ll I’ll call “K” for anonymity.

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So go! You don’t have to sound as dumb as me, but don’t be afraid to speak the language. Even if you get it wrong, people will appreciate the effort. It’s better to communicate a little rather than not at all!

But as you’re off adventuring, and learning new things, and seeing new places, a feeling– one of the most unexpected, gut-wrenching feelings– one that can and has sent kids home and ruined exchanges– is going to hit you.

6. You’re going to get homesick.

I’ve never been abroad for a extended period of time, so I don’t have much experience with this. But I can attest to the stress that comes with going abroad. The climate is different. The food is different. The language is different, forcing you to concentrate all day, every day. A lot of students experience exhaustion their first few days abroad.

When it really gets bad, I hear, is about three or four months into your exchange. By then, the “honeymoon” period of your exchange has worn off. The novelty is gone. Yet three months is a very short time within which to make friends (at least for me, but I am friend-making-ly challenged) so many students find themselves suddenly craving the familiarity of home.

My best friend from high school hosted a girl from France for a year. Sure enough, a couple months into her exchange, my best friend confessed:

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While you’re wrapped up calling home, though, you’re missing out on what’s going on around you. Time spent talking with your real family is time missed talking with your host family. YFU told us, many, many, times:

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Because, more often than not, kids encounter this problem on their exchange. (They even told kids on short-term exchanges to leave their laptops behind, to avoid hiding behind a computer screen all day.)

When I went to Germany, I actually wasn’t expecting to get homesick. I was only there for six weeks. But sure, enough, when I Skyped my parents…

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And then my friends…

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Of course, I never got to the OMG-I’m-miserable-here-send-me-home-right-now point, but I did feel those pangs of homesickness. After you hit that low, though, your exchange slowly gets better and better until, by the end, you don’t want to go home anymore! And then you go home and get reverse culture shock, which is a whole other story.

I guess, in the end, all of these tips really boil down to one thing:

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You can’t truly enjoy the country if you aren’t in the country. Not just physically there, but mentally there as well. Immerse yourself!

So, to all you prospective exchange students? Don’t be scared: go abroad! No two exchanges are alike– and some kids do have bad luck– but most kids have a blast abroad. (I did!) In the end, your experience is what you make of it. And the things you can learn from your experience… well, that’s a whole other post in itself.

Now go board a plane and spread your awesomeness elsewhere.

High schoolers! Don’t know where to start? I super-believe in studying abroad, so I’mma link to two organizations I know are legit:

Youth for Understanding (I used this one! If money’s an issue, there’s a ton of scholarships available, like the full-ride I got to Deutschland!)

AFS Intercultural Programs (A girl I knew used this one to go to Japan– they offer partial scholarships.)

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44 thoughts on “6 ways to make your study abroad more awesome

      • I was part of a concert tour (sing/orchestra) where I sang 1st tenor. We traveled to, I believe, 17 countries and performed over a dozen times. I wouldn’t trade that for the world (besides, what would I do with the world?). We went to Germany, England, France, Belgium, Holland(Netherlands), and many other places.

  1. I went to Norway and did everything said here mostly by accident. Except sounding dumb. That was more of a necessity. Try finding a bathroom when the signs are without pictograms, in the neuter plural forms and you keep switching the word for boy and girl.

    Or communicating when the only word that comes to mind is ‘ice bear’ and you’re in the 90% of the country that’s ice-bear-free.

    But you do get praised for taking two minutes to formulate the sentence ‘ice bears eat meat’ and then shouting it across the cafetaria.

    • Oh man, that sounds like an adventure. Bathrooms in other countries are always a challenge– in Japan, you could never tell if a bathroom was Western-style (sitting down) or Japanese style (squatting). Every bathroom break became giant trek around the building looking for the one and only Western-style toilet.
      It sounds like you have some awesome exchange student stories! When did you go to Norway?

  2. Great advice! I was an exchange student 31 years ago in Switzerland and I still keep in touch with my host-family today in 2013!

      • I´m also still in touch after 24 years. It is a very nice feeling to have a family on the other side of the world. It is also a pity not to see them so often!

        • It’s incredible that you’ve kept in touch with your host family after so much time. I’m still waiting for the day I can return to Germany to see my host family!
          Being open to approaching people is a really great tip. I have trouble with that one, actually– I’m pretty bad at initiating conversation. So I’ll definitely keep that in mind next time I go abroad!
          You’ve been a host sibling, host parent, AND exchange student. That’s amazing! I hope one day I can be as internationally experienced as you. There’s nothing quite like experiencing another culture; you can learn so much.

  3. Heh! “Doesn’t know the word for biology… Doesn’t know the word for laboratory…” I can completely, totally, relate to this situation. Everyone’s staring at you and waiting patiently for you to answer, and you’re frantically trying to think of something – anything – that you CAN say.

    Last week my colleagues asked me, “Why don’t you eat horses in Ireland?”

    Long wait while I try to find words to make a reasoned and sensible reply… longer wait while I try to formulate any reply at all… eventually I blurt out “because horses are our friends!”

  4. I wish I was an exchange student. But, if I was an exchange student, then I would totally use all of these great tips! Can you still play GTA 4 at 6:30 on Mon?

  5. I am going to have to bookmark this. We have hosted a couple of times and some of this is SO familiar…..also I really, really like the Manga format. So cool.

  6. As someone who IS currently studying long term (Ive been in Japan for six monthes and Ill be here for around 4 more) I can attest to this all being excellent advice.

    I think the one I was least ready for was the homesickness. I barely contact home when Im away at college so for me the fact that Id get homesick seemed sort of silly. But its exactly as youve described, you just begin craving the familiar, something to hold onto. The worst bit is when you’re actually a socially aware student (if youve ever studied sociology at all) you begin to notice things that really BUG you about where you’re living.

    This can be both positive and negative. It has help me realize all the good things I took for granted in my home country. BUT I do often find myself ignoring the good things in lieu of the bad things. It happens.

    I think another good piece of advice that is sort of tied into this? “There will be days when you hate the country you’re in, everything about it” This is normal, but you can’t let it color your whole experience. I personally found I feel better when in the countryside of Japan, in Shrines and temples, while the city leaves me feeling disgusted a lot of the time.

    There is no right or wrong way to experience another country, just so long as you make sure you are in fact experiencing it, not just living there

  7. Some very good advice here.

    My wife and I have hosted 13 exchange students from various countries around the world. There are three things we tell each student when they arrive: Be honest, be respectful to people/property and try everything once.

    We have also taken in students who have had to be moved out of their existing host families for various reasons. Most of the time it was not the students fault. From this we have learned that if things are not working out with your host family, it is really important that you speak with someone about it as soon as possible to resolve the issues.

    Some of our students have had homesickness to a small degree, but we keep them so occupied, any longing for home is soon dispelled. Others haven’t missed their families/friends at all. They all have mixed emotions when it is time to return to their respective home countries. Every one of them does not want to leave but know they have to.

    They all keep in touch, some on a weekly basis. Our mail man hates Christmas time because of the number of parcels that he has to deliver to us.

    In a few days time we will get to experience the first of our students who will be returning to visit us and their ‘second home’.

    Later this year we will be travelling overseas, to visit as many of our former exchange students and their families as we can, over a 7 week period. A trip we would probably not be making if we had not been host parents.

    • That’s amazing! That’s going to be an awesome trip! It’s really great that you’ve been able to keep in such close touch with your host students, since I know most kids eventually fall out of contact. It’s also great that you keep your exchange students busy, since I know a lot of kids are uncomfortable with hanging around the house all day. You guys sound like an awesome host family! I hope, in the far future, I will be able to host kids as well. :)
      Have fun on your trip! Out of curiosity, which program do you use to host students?

      • Thank you. Visiting 7 countries and 9 families in 7 weeks should keep us occupied. Experiencing new cultures and foods, just like our exchange students did, are just some of the things we are looking forward to on this trip.

        When you get older, hosting students and doing things with them, actually makes you fell younger. So if you have the opportunity to host – go for it!

        We used EF until recently but they have now ceased this part of their operation in our country. Now we are hosting through YFU.

      • I´m from Argentina, so I might be able to help you. It is a great country, people are very friendly and outgoing. Weather is normally great. And now we even have a pope! (Everyone is talking about it here) Let me know if you have any inquiries.

  8. Thanks for bringing me back to my time in Germany in 1989… I was also exchange student with YFU and had the experience of my life! I have hosted for them also. I would highly recommend both experiences to everyone!

    • That’s amazing that you got both sides of the experience! I definitely want to host an exchange student once I’m settled down. How did you like the hosting experience?

      • It was great. I don´t have kids on my own, so it was very nice for me to become the “mother” of grown up girls. I had YFU exchange students at home when I was living with my parents and then I was involved with another program for college students when I was on my own. I think there is another tip to add to your text: Be open, approach people.
        Here in Argentina people is very friendly and many people will talk to you and will want to know about you but in many places you will be the one having to initiate the conversation. It can be hard for some people but if you don´t do it, you will remain on your own and it won´t be fun.

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