It’s hard to believe that only a few years ago I was studying abroad in London and working in the fashion industry. While every person’s study abroad experience is unique, we can all follow these five tips for making that big life decision just a little bit easier. If you, like me, have already completed a program I’d love to hear what city you chose and why and for those of you who are still up in the air with where to go, hopefully these suggestions will help narrow down your wish list.
1) Do your research
This might be a fairly obvious one to some but I suggest you keep your options open, at least in the initial research stage. Having never been out of the country before studying in London, I viewed this experience as an opportunity to travel and I gave every destination a chance. At one point I was set on Stellenbosch, South Africa but then I saw images of Australia and New Zealand and my heart shifted to Sydney. From there I zig-zagged all around Europe until finally landing on London.
Without limiting yourself too much, research all different types of destinations and try to picture yourself in each one of them. What will you find there? Who will you meet? What can you learn? Sometimes being as broad as possible is the best tactic for slimming down your options. You’ll naturally come to a conclusion and feel good about it because you literally gave everything a shot.
2) Follow your focus
While it’s completely alright to not know what you want to do once abroad, it’s helpful to have some sort of goal in mind. For example, I knew that I wanted to do an internship. As a double major, adding an internship to an already busy course load wasn’t the easiest thing to do but it’s what I wanted so I made it work. Choosing a program that offered both classes and internships drastically narrowed down my options and when I realized that I wanted to be able to speak English on the job, London came out the clear winner.
The same is true for every type of interest. Do you want to learn a new language? If so, definitely go somewhere where English is not widely spoken. Better yet, opt to live with a local family rather than a dorm with other students. You’ll be forced to practice the language and will feel better acclimated with the culture as a result. I know several people who did this and came back with a firm grasp on the language and it was rather impressive.
3) Consider your finances
I hate to be a downer but ignoring your finances entirely isn’t the best strategy for success. I was lucky that my parents offered to pay for my tuition and that significantly helped me survive in London with a horrendous exchange rate. That being said, most of my leisure expenses like traveling on the weekend, eating out with friends and exploring the city were left up to me so I did have to watch my money. It was tough to see my fellow classmates splurging on everything from fancy coffee to designer clothes but such is life.
If you’re parents are going to help fund your trip, have a clear discussion with them about expenses might come up. For those of you who will be paying your own way, more power to you. Start by getting a sense of the country’s currency and how much things generally cost. As stressful as money issues can be, try not to let them discourage you from pursuing your dream.
4) Balance the best of both worlds
Finding the best of both worlds is not the same for everyone. For me, I wanted a culturally diverse destination that didn’t require me to speak a foreign language. Not that I’m against languages – quite the opposite actually, but I didn’t want anything to deter companies from hiring me and sometimes a lack of native language skills is a deal breaker.
I also wanted a city that was a good starting point for traveling elsewhere. London is a perfect balance of the two. For my first few months in town, it felt like I was on a plane at least every other weekend. All of Europe was at my fingertips and if I wanted to go beyond the continent, it was still a lot cheaper than if I started from the United States.
My best of both worlds might not be what you’re looking for and that’s totally fine. If you’re scared of the whole language barrier, try other English-speaking cities like Dublin or even Toronto. Another thing worth noting is that you don’t necessarily have to cross the globe to experience culture. Québec City is about a two hour plane ride from New York but feels lightyears away.
5) Listen to your gut
This might be last on the list but it’s just as important as the other four tips. I remember all of my friends were planning to study in Bilbao, Spain and as much as I tried to tell myself that I should join their program, my gut told me otherwise. Deep down, I knew that I wanted to meet new people and experience a city for myself. Choosing London sounded “lame” compared to other cities like Cairo or Mumbai but I wouldn’t trade my semester for anything. I got exactly what I sought and so, so much more.
For some of us, shutting up the voice in our head is easier said than done. For others, it’s second nature and no big deal. If your gut is telling you not to go somewhere or to think about this or that, don’t immediately dismiss it. If nothing else, it’s a way to delve deeper into your fears, which will ultimately make the choice much clearer. In all honesty, wherever you end up going will be just perfect. I have yet to hear anyone not rave about their experience living in ____ (insert fabulous city).
Have you studied abroad? If so, where did you go? Tell me in the comments below!
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