May 3, 2023 | ,

10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Studying Abroad

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As I dragged my suitcase up 5 flights of stone stairs in an apartment building with limited air conditioning, I realized studying abroad was not going to be exactly what I expected. Nevertheless, the summer I spent in Florence, Italy became one of the most incredible and transformational experiences I’ve ever had. I made unforgettable memories and developed skills that will last a lifetime. The longer I spent abroad however, the more helpful tips and tricks I picked up. By the time it was time to return to Philadelphia, I had created a mental list of advice I’d give to anyone that planned to study abroad in the future. 

What was on that list exactly? Keep reading to find out. 

Watching the sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo on my last night in Florence

1. Study your transportation options

Every study abroad destination will have a different transportation system that makes the most sense to use during your stay. In Italy, I ended up taking the train all over the country for day trips and weekend excursions. Find out what transportation options will be available to you and study them as much as you can prior to your arrival. If there’s an app, go ahead and download it. Sometimes longterm passes are available that may save you money depending on how long you plan to stay. These are all helpful things to know before you even set foot in your host country! 

2. Figure out your phone situation before you arrive 

Decide if you are going to utilize an international phone plan or SIM card prior to arrival and do as much research as possible. There are certainly pros and cons to both and it will ultimately come down to what the best fit is for you. Personally, I decided to use an international plan and was really happy with my experience—as long as you’re careful to not go over your text limit!

I took a weekend trip to Grindelwald, Switzerland and had the best time

3. Think of where you want to travel—but don’t book anything just yet 

I was amazed at how easy it was to travel to different places! So many iconic destinations are just a short train ride away. During my weekends, I traveled to cities all over Italy and even squeezed in trips to Paris and Switzerland. Because I spent so much time preparing for Florence, I hadn’t put much thought into weekend travel prior to arriving. Before you depart for your study abroad experience, I recommend compiling a list of destinations you definitely want to visit. That being said, I would advise not actually booking anything until you arrive in your host country. You will likely meet new friends you’ll want to travel with or may have class-related weekend commitments once you receive your syllabi! 

4. Know as much as you can about the culture (and the language)

Some countries will have cultural practices that vary significantly from what you’re used to. Do some research on some of the largest cultural differences—is it commonplace or rude to leave a tip? What does restaurant etiquette look like in your host country? Questions like these are important to know the answers to because they will become a part of your daily life. Being fluent in the country’s language is of course ideal, but don’t stress if you’re not. Memorize a few basic phrases and trust that you will pick up even more of the language before you know it. BTW… You can use your phone camera to take a photo of a sign and translate it—that feature became a lifesaver for me. 

The most incredible pesto pizza and aperol spritz after a day of hiking in Cinque Terre

5. Grocery shopping is going to look different 

Because food is such a crucial part of experiencing other cultures, you will probably eat out for more meals abroad than you would at school. You will inevitably end up doing some grocery shopping though, and prepare in advance to be creative. I usually ate breakfast in my apartment most days and struggled to find foods like peanut butter and oatmeal that are often staples for me at home. Become acquainted with a few grocery stores in the area so you can learn how they vary in offerings. And if there’s a local market near your home, take advantage of it as often as you can! 

6. Anticipate tricky weather conditions 

Do some research before you arrive on the average temperatures and weather conditions of your host country and plan accordingly. The summer I spent in Italy was one of the hottest on record so packing strategically was a huge help! 

Vernazza in Cinque Terre

7. When it comes to important items, you can never be too prepared

While I was really lucky during my study abroad experience, I watched heartbroken friends panic over missing passports or camera rolls that suddenly disappeared. Because of this, it is important to have back up plans in place. I would recommend keeping scans of your passport, credit cards, and vaccine cards on your phone just in case you lose any important documents. Make sure you also have a way to back up your photos and do it often! 

8. You’re probably going to be walking… a LOT

I love to walk. In my free time in Philly, you can usually find me on a long walk with an iced matcha latte from Jiggy Coffee in hand. I personally didn’t have an issue with how much walking was required during my study abroad experience, but a lot of my peers found it really surprising and difficult. This will of course vary by location, but perhaps do some research into where you’ll be staying. How walkable is the city? How far will you live from school? 

9. Feeling homesick is normal

No matter how exciting this time is, it is also really jarring to be in a place that is so different from home. Feeling homesick is completely normal and all of your peers are probably feeling the same exact way. Still, don’t let it stop you from trying new things and making the most of your time here. Your host country will start to feel like home in certain ways before you know it!  

My study abroad roommates and me

10. Making new friends is one of the best parts of studying abroad

I made the decision to study abroad in a program where I didn’t know anyone, and looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. It was easy to bond with new people over our incredible shared experience and we were all equally eager to travel and experience as much as possible. A year later, the friends I made abroad and I still keep in touch constantly and I feel so lucky to have had the chance to connect with people I probably would have never met otherwise. 

If you keep these tips in mind, your study abroad experience is sure to be a big success! The most important thing to remember however, is to live in the moment and soak up every second of this incredible experience. After all, Taylor Swift said it best“make the friendship bracelets, take the moment and taste it, you’ve got no reason to be afraid.”

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Are YOU interested in studying abroad too? Learn more about available opportunities by visiting the study abroad office at your university for more information.

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