EXPERIENCES FROM ABROAD: WHAT TO KNOW AND EXPECT

By Alex Jensen

Table of contents

Going to live in a foreign country undoubtedly raises many questions or concerns, rightly so. When boarding your flight there’s no way to know what journey’s you’re going to embark on or people you’ll meet.

Everybody’s experience abroad is unique but there’s similar threads and lessons to be learned from those who went before you.

But when researching  what you should know before studying abroad the search results are full of numbered lists: “10 things  I wish I knew before studying abroad,” “7 things to know before studying abroad,” “what you need to know before studying abroad,” etc.

While the articles are insightful and give lots of great advice, it’s just a list of advice with no context behind how it was learned and why it is being told.

Certainly your college’s or university’s international programs office says something like “don’t forget about the study part of your study abroad.” While studying is the reason for you being in that country, there are a lot of other components that go into living abroad: housing, transportation, language, new culture, money, phone plans, meeting people, etc. 

These stories from students who have studied abroad will shine a light on some situations you might encounter and how you might deal with them.

 

There are so many places to see, experiences to have, incredible food and drinks to enjoy. But unfortunately a lot of it comes with a price tag. Saving up for your study abroad trip is probably one of the best things you can do. Most study abroad programs will have some form of cost sheet estimating how much you’ll spend during your program based on previous student experiences.

 

“I understand that not everyone has as much financial freedom, but make sure that you have a little bit of wiggle room so you can do these chance things,” says Sophie Yusem, who studied in Aix-en-Provence, France. Yusem saved a lot before going abroad so she didn’t have to worry as much about blowing all her money. 

 

Here’s how students have saved money on a day-to-day basis and avoided getting items stolen:

International Credit Cards

Before leaving the U.S., get a credit card that doesn’t have any international fees. You won’t  rack up extra fees every time you swipe it.

Debit cards will incur a foreign transaction fee every time you use them. These usually range from 1-3% of the purchase amount. So, the fee might just be a few cents if you’re only buying things under $30, but it all adds up. Also, banks and credit unions usually charge a flat fee and a percentage of the amount you withdraw for using an ATM network in another country. 

An international credit card saves money on fees. Use that money instead on a pastry from that bakery emitting delicious smells. 

Courtney McGrath, who studied in Nürtingen, Germany, used an international credit card and  had a family member withdraw money from her savings to pay it off. That way she could save on ATM transaction fees. 

Don’t just depend on a card for money. There are a number of places you’ll find abroad that don’t take cards and you need cash. “I would recommend always carrying cash though, because most places where I lived were cash only,” McGrath said. 

No matter what form of money you are carrying, a good practice is keeping it concealed. There’s no better way to ruin an experience than getting  your wallet or bag stolen.

Courtney McGrath studied abroad in Nürtingen, Germany, in fall 2018.

Conceal Money

“Always be aware of your surroundings,” says Elin Johnson, who studied in Aix-en-Provence, France . “If you carry a purse, carry it so the zipper or opening is tucked away from a passerby. It can be easy to get distracted by all the beauty and wonder around you, but be sure you stay alert and aware. I never had any issues because I used common sense and stayed prepared, and didn’t get into potentially dangerous situations that way.”

 

In areas where pickpockets are known to work, keep valuables in an inaccessible place. I kept my wallet in the inside pocket of a jacket while in these areas. One time I had to grab a hand out of my pocket on a subway in Paris. It was a scary situation but fortunately my wallet wasn’t stolen. And don’t assume you will  be able to feel when someone is pickpocketing. I was lucky that I moved my hand to my pocket at just the right moment.

Day-to-day Money Saving Tips

Once you’re abroad there are a lot of money saving practices to use on a day-to-day basis. 

 

“I was careful with money and tried not to eat out too much if it was out of convenience and not because I wanted to try a new place,” said Jordan Keller, who studied in Ireland. 

 

Food can be one of the easiest ways to spend a lot of money and I’d say one of the most tempting ways. It’s also pretty easy for the bulk of your money to go toward food. While you’re out and about travelling, you may not be able to cook, and so you have to eat out. Or, you may be in a host family program where certain meals are not provided. 

 

Food is also one of the best ways to experience a culture so it is easy to get lost in the  abundance of delicious choices. While I was abroad, I spent most of my money on food, and transportation. 

 

While living in Oslo, Norway, I was in a student apartment with a kitchen. Because eating out was pretty pricey I tried to cook as much as possible. Of course while I was exploring the city or traveling I had to eat out. So, to save money I would try not buy anything for a couple days during the week. I tried to eat up all of the food I had in my apartment. 

 

Depending on the country, you might be living in student dorms that have dining halls, or with a host family that provides meals for you. Groceries may not have to be a big part of your  budget. 

 

Of course, there are meals that you have to provide on your own when you’re out of the house. 

 

Thomas Foy, who studied in Vienna, Austria, and lived with a host family. To save some money, he recommends avoiding expensive options in favor of happy hours or cheaper clubs. 

 

Foy lived in the First  District of Vienna. Like most city centers, things were typically more expensive. He would go to the outer districts where prices were lower. 

 

Carmen Chasse recommends saving more than you think you’ll need before going abroad. While living in England, Chasse lived in a student dorm with a dining hall, and saved her money so she could afford to go on a month-long backpacking trip. Her school had a four-week break where students were required to move out during that time. 

Photo courtesy of Carmen Chasse.
Photo Courtesy of Carmen Chasse. Carmen Chasse at Robbins Hood Statue Nottingham, England, fall 2018.
Photo courtesy of Carmen Chasse

Technology is one of the biggest resources that can make the whole study abroad experience go smooth. Know what you need in terms of phone data plans, sim cards, and other electronics. It will avoid a headache in the future or being stuck in a dangerous situation. 

The biggest recommendation, if doable, is to get a local SIM card for your phone. It is usually much cheaper than getting an international data plan from an U.S. phone carrier. 

“When traveling around Europe, this made navigating foreign cities much easier, as well as having access to uber and other transportation information when you are getting around,” Yusem said.

“That was really a life saver,” says Johnson. “I was able to use the internet and send messages while I was traveling, which was super helpful especially with navigating and researching.”  

Elin Johnson studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France spring 2019.

Before you commit to a local SIM card provider, look at all of the countries it operates in. Find one that works when traveling across multiple borders. It makes things much easier. It’s also really important to check-in with your U.S. carrier before leaving to get your phone unlocked.

Keller has AT&T and her phone was locked while abroad. “It would have been $50 to remove it [SIM card] which was almost as expensive as a phone plan would have been for the whole trip,” she said. Keller had wifi access at school and at home so she was able to get by without a phone plan but said it would have been nice to access data for maps while traveling. Instead she always made sure she traveled with at least one friend who had data, “so I was able to mooch off of them,” she said.

SIM cards are also not the only option. You can opt not to buy one to save money. Foy, who studied in Vienna, didn’t buy a SIM card. But wifi hotspots are also accessible throughout Europe.

“I could only use my phone when connected to wifi, which made it difficult to communicate while on the go,” Foy said. “So, I needed to make a solid plan before leaving to meet up with friends.”

Lauren Morrisonn, who studied in Quito, Ecuador, brought her regular phone, which she only used at school and home. She never wanted to take it out on the bus. Instead she bought the cheapest smartphone available so she could use Uber and WhatsApp anytime and anywhere. 

When packing to go abroad, Yusem brought her phone and a GoPro but didn’t use it that often. “If you are someone who just documents everything on your phone anyways, I wouldn’t worry about bringing a camera,” she says. “It is one extra thing to be responsible for, and expensive to replace if things go wrong.”

“Having data and having a portable charger while traveling is very important,” says Vanessa Kelly, who studied in Yokohama, Japan. “You need to be able to navigate when you don’t have wifi, and you need to make sure your phone doesn’t die and leave you stranded somewhere.”

I didn’t have a portable charger at first but after my trip to Tromsø, Noway, I immediately bought one and it was a lifesaver. My phone died from the cold while I was across the town from my hostel and it was getting dark. Fortunately, Tromsø isn’t that big and I had gotten to know the area already. I found my way back to the hostel just before it got completely dark.

The type of housing you have depends on the program you are in. Each has their unique features and challenges. Keep an open-mind no matter where you are staying because your housing situation can either enhance or diminish the study abroad experience.

Host Families

Language track programs commonly have a host family to learn the language better as well as experience the culture and customs. Host families can also be a good resource and support system. 

But like any new relationship, especially one where you’re living in close proximities, it can take effort and time to build.

Building Relationships

“A big part of living with a host family is making the effort and taking the time to build relationships with your family members,” says Yusem. She lived in an apartment in Aix-en-Provence with two half-sisters just outside downtown.

“It can be awkward at first with cultural and language barriers, but when you are living in someone else’s space it’s really important to establish these relationships,” 

Yusem added. “So, that you feel comfortable having conversations, asking for help, and telling your host family what you like and don’t like.”

Establishing a relationship early helps set boundaries and improves the overall experience. 

 

Photo Courtesy of Sophie Yusem: Sophie Yusem (middle) and her host mom's in Aix-en-Provence, fall 2019.

Building your language skills can also help create a closer connection to your host family.

During Sara Heine’ program she spent part of the time in Quito, Ecuador and the other in the Galapagos islands. She lived with two different host families. Her host mom in the Galapagos didn’t speak a lot of English.

“I was the only one that spoke any Spanish really,” Heine said about her host mom’s experience with previous students. “She appreciated really being able to have conversations with me and not having to use a translator app with me to be able to communicate.”

Even though Heine and her Galapagos host mom never became super close they still shared that moment. 

To help build a relationship Foy says “do not lock yourself away in your room.” He lived with a host family in Vienna. “Some advice I would give someone living with a host family is to be open and ready to get out of your comfort zone,” he says.

Melissa Rockow, who lived with a host mom in Vienna, says if there’s an issue with your living situation, tell someone about it. Rockow didn’t have any issues with her host mom but had heard stories. Having a bad living situation can really dampen the mood and the experience as a whole while abroad.

Difficult Host Family Experience

Maddie Roberts spent a semester in Aix-en-Provence, France in a difficult living situation with her host mom.

“I just felt like I was watching her life carry on and I had to mold myself to fit somewhere in her life and I didn’t know how to fit in her life at all,” Roberts said. 

It was just Roberts and her host mom, who didn’t speak English, in an apartment. Occasionally her host mom’s boyfriend came over but Roberts was never told when. She would come home and he’d just be there.

“French people are very very cold and reserved and they don’t like showing emotion”, says Roberts. “I guess. They don’t warm up to you easy. I never felt like I got into a good friendly relationship. She seemed like she cared about me but in a very strange cold way.”

During the first few days in Aix-en-Provence her host mom helped Roberts get a bus pass and showed her how to walk to and from school. After the first day of class she picked her up to show her how to take the bus home. 

 

“I would call that a very hands-off approach too. It felt like she was like ‘okay I’m going to do this once you can do it yourself okay,’” Roberts said. “She helped me figure out what I needed and helped to give me what I needed but anything more than that seemed like an inconvenience.”

The pair would typically not see each other during the day. Roberts woke up early for school and didn’t come home until dinner time. Her host wouldn’t wake up until later in the morning. 

“Every night at dinner I would always ask if there’s anything I could help her with and she would say ‘oh no you’re a guest you don’t need to do anything’ but I always helped her clear the table and put my dishes in the dishwasher,” Roberts says.

On the weekends neither of them saw much of each other because her host mom would go hiking and Roberts would be traveling. 

Photo courtesy of Elin Johnson. Aix-en-Provence, France.

“It felt like she had this routine and I was just there,” Roberts said.

Her host mom would also go through her room and remake the bed if it wasn’t done well enough the first time. Robert’s wasn’t allowed to leave clothes out in her room.

“It felt like in the room I had to make myself as invisible as possible,” she said. “She was very clean so I couldn’t leave anything on the floor, on the chair and on my bed in the room I had.”

Looking back on her experience Robert said she would have talked to someone in the international program’s office to resolve it. 

Dealing with Rules & Restrictions, Getting used to customs

Going from living independently while in college to being in a house with rules and restrictions can be a readjustment. 

 

“Because you are a guest in someone else’s home there are certain rules and restrictions you must abide by that could be a change from a student’s usual independence,” Johnson says.

 

“They’re [host family] really friendly and also really involved, which is a bit of a difference from being used to being independent at college,” Heine says. “My host parents wanted to know where I was going, how long I’d be gone, who I would be going with and when I would be coming back.”

 

Each host country and family has their own customs on treating guests, which might take some getting used to. In Quito, Heine’s host mom had a woman who worked for her who would do all the cooking. 

 

“She would do my laundry for me. I wasn’t allowed to make my own bed or do dishes or anything,” Heine says. “Which was super weird for me because I felt bad living in someone’s home and not being able to help or do my part in anything. I wasn’t used to that, that was weird.”

 

In her Japanese program, Kelly experienced living in a student dorm and with a host family. “I also felt guilty when not being allowed to help my host mom with chores like cooking or cleaning dishes,” she said. “But I had to understand that this is a part of the polite culture of Japan; to give and treat your guests with the best.”

 

“I would advise anyone staying with a host family to show your appreciation in any way best you can,” Kelly says. “And to make sure that you understand what they expect from you in terms of rules of the house very early on so as to avoid any awkward or uncomfortable-ness.”

Student Dorms & Apartments

Programs that are not language tracks usually have students stay in either dorms or apartments, depending on the university.

Student dorms are usually a single room with a communal bathroom for the entire floor and have a dining room hall. Unlike the U.S., It’s uncommon to have a roommate in the same room. Student apartments have single rooms and also a kitchen and the bathroom is shared with fewer people.

 

“My advice is to be open and friendly and be prepared to chat with people that you don’t know,” says Anna Peckham, who studied in Townsville, Australia. Her student dorm had a bathroom on each floor, which was co-ed.

The biggest difference for Peckham was the drinking age. In Australia it’s legal to drink at 18, so students were allowed to drink in their room as long as there were no open containers in the hallways.

Rilee Macaluso, studied in Nottingham, England, and lived in a student dorm with a co-ed bathroom and dining hall

 

“I was told that the dorms were co-ed but I was not prepared for how gross it was going to be to share a communal bathroom with a bunch of 18 year old guys,” Macaluso says. “One time, there was a giant orange traffic cone in one of the stalls… there was always something weird in the bathroom.”

Rilee Macaluso studied in Nottingham, England fall 2018

“Be sure you reach out beforehand and find out if you need pots/pans, what kind of bedding is provided, and what utensils you’ll need,” McGrath says. She lived in an international student dorm in Nürtingen, Germany. 

 

McGrath also needed to buy a wifi router there because her dorm didn’t have one. She recommends checking for that as well. 

 

If you plan to live in a student dorm or apartment check the housing website to see what’s provided and not. If it doesn’t explicitly say wifi is provided reach to the school’s housing office and ask.

 

I showed up to my student apartment in Oslo and didn’t have wifi either. After just landing  and spending four hours at the housing office to get my apartment it was the last thing I wanted to deal with. 

 

“The biggest challenge was that the kitchen was pretty small for four people,” Keller says. She lived in a student apartment in Ireland. Her apartment had a mini fridge that could only fit a few meals at once. She needed to go grocery shopping several times a week. Luckily, there were two stores within walking distance. 

Being comfortable in a city usually goes hand and hand with also being able to navigate it. One of the first steps students should take when arriving is familiarize themselves with how to get around either by walking or using public transportation. 

 

“It’s always a little weird going somewhere for the first time, or using public transport for the first time, but quickly you will figure out your favorite cafes, lunch spots, bus route, and it’ll all become part of your normal day to day routine,” Yusem says.

 

“I used Google Maps nearly every single day while living in Japan,” Kelly says. “Eventually when I wasn’t leaving the area around my school, I ended up not even needing it.”

After a month, Kelly had become familiar with the area enough not to need directions. “This came naturally over time after going the same route to the nearest train station, bus station, or streets,” she said.

 

“I think I was comfortable getting around Nottingham by the third week,” Macaluso said.  “We did a lot of exploring during those first few weeks, trying to find the best cafés, stores, and restaurants. We also tried almost every form of transit available, except for actually driving ourselves” 

 

Macaluso says the best way to learn a new area is to travel it as much as possible. Rockow, who studied in Vienna also felt the same way. 

 

“Just wander around and get lost is my number one recommendation in the city that you are in,” Rockow says.

Photo courtesy of Rilee Macaluso. Rilee Macaluso in Nottingham, England fall 2018

She found wandering around new areas to be the best way to get comfortable and experience new places. “Honestly, people will want to get tourist books and everything, but I had them and never looked at them. I literally just wandered,” Rockow said. 

 

Starting in the city center and then working out from there is the best trick for exploring. By doing that she discovered a lot of side streets and alleyways that have a lot of interesting shops. 

 

Rockow had a local SIM card in her phone so she was able to access the city’s transit maps if needed. But she never felt “lost lost” even when not sure exactly where she was.

 

To help with not getting “lost lost,” Johnson recommends picking up on notable landmarks near where you frequent. This way if you do get a little lost you’ll still be able to reorient yourself. 

 

“That’s usually the best way to discover interesting features about your new home and to get more acquainted with directions in the new city,” Johnson said. 

 

Kelly also recommends if you’re using a navigation app on your phone to mark locations you visit frequently or want to remember on it. The reason she says:

  1. To remember them later when talking about your study abroad experience, especially ones you might not have pictures of.
  2. When potentially revisiting those places in the future or recommending them to a friend.
  3. When seeing a map with landmarked locations that you recognize, you’re able to understand where you are spatially in regard to those other locations, which can be helpful if you’ve become lost.

Not only is it a good idea to keep track of places you want to see, but also to pin the location of where you’re staying when traveling. I didn’t mark my hostel location once and while wandering around its neighborhood  I did get lost and had to search through my phone records to find the name of the hostel to map myself back.

Small town, small college to big city

Living in a big city takes some getting used to especially when coming from a small town or college. It might take more time to get comfortable in it compared to students coming from bigger cities.

 

“I grew up in a small town and l live in a small town for college now,” Heine says . “So, I never ever really grew up taking public transportation at all”

 

“You hear all the time when you’re traveling abroad in big cities to be careful of pickpockets if you’re taking the bus to hold onto your stuff,” Heine said. During her pre-departure orientation it was warned that Quito was especially bad for pickpockets and people stealing stuff on the bus.

 

“So, I was already kind of nervous, because I knew if someone was going to steal something from a vulnerable white girl, I’m kind of the spitting image of that,” she said. But in the area she ended up living she didn’t need to ride the bus on a daily basis. 

 

When you do need to take public transportation she says, “you just have to be mindful and as everybody says don’t take super valuable stuff with you when you’re going to be doing that kind of thing [riding buses].”




Annalise Oertwich, who studied in Oslo, Norway, said it took three to four weeks to become fully comfortable.  The main thing was learning how to manage public transportation because she never lived in a big city.

Oertwich used an app with all of Oslo’s public transportation routes on it to help her get around. For most big cities there are apps that have all the transportation services, routes and departure times on it.  

Chasse, studied abroad in England and New Zealand, says public transportation was accessible and easy in both locations. She found it only took her a couple weeks to get acquainted and comfortable in her new cities because at the beginning of her programs she would go to a lot of events to meet people.

Annalise Oertwich studied abroad in Oslo, Norway, spring 2019.

“Once you make friends, it’s easier to travel and plan things,” Chasse says.

At the start of each semester abroad, programs have international student orientations. These orientation sessions are a great way to meet people who are from all over the world. The perks of meeting fellow international students is that they typically want to experience the same new things as you. Plus, all of you are trying to get to know new people because everyone just landed in a country where they probably don’t know anybody.

 

“I was lucky in that the international program had 70 students from all around Europe and the US,” McGrath says, who studied in Nürtingen. “Meeting people was easy in the dorms and many international events were held to help integrate us into campus life.”

 

Depending on where you’re studying abroad, more so if in a country where you don’t speak the native language, you’re going to be in classes with fellow international students. International students are also typically housed together. Which all can make meeting local student difficult because you’re not interacting with them on a daily basis.

 

If an opportunity comes up where you can meet local students, take it. 

 

“I met a lot of friends through orientation or college events,” Johhson said, who studied in Aix-en-Provence. Her program hosted mixers with French students from nearby universities, which helped her meet local students. 

 

“My dorm put on a lot of events that made it easy to meet people, and there was an orientation week that had events every night for people,” says Peckham.

 

Other than orientation events, there are loads of opportunities to meet people from classes, housing and going out. 

 

If your dorm doesn’t put on events to meet people, still try to make those connections with the people who live around you. Oertwich met most of her friends from those who lived on the same floor as her and also those in class. 

 

“That is why I really stress to make connections with those who live on your floor,” Oertwich says. “One of my closest friends lived on the same floor as me and we would often eat dinner together, travel together, watch movies, and hang out together. We became really close and still facetime to this day!”

 

It’s also okay if you’re not able to become close with the people you live with. “I didn’t click super well with two of my roommates, so we never really became close,” Keller said. Instead she made friends from her class that had all international students.

 

There are a lot of new experiences while abroad and opportunities to try new things. But not everything has to be “new.” It’s okay to continue to do things that you did back home. 

“It’s important to put yourself out there,” Kelly says. “Joining clubs or attending campus events help this a lot because you’re able to meet people with similar interests as you. These similar interests can be a useful icebreaker, especially when making friends from another country.”

Morrison studied in Quito and also swam in college. She met people through school and the pool she swam at while abroad. “My best advice for meeting people is to continue all the activities that you do at home, that way you will already have things in common with the people that you meet,” she says.  

Outside of school and hobbies it can be hard to meet locals. “Making friends with locals was difficult to do, just in everyday life, because it’d be weird just to walk up to somebody and be like ‘hey,’” Rockow said. “We didn’t have a lot of interactions with locals our age unless you went out at night.”

“Going out and partying is also a great way to meet people,” Peckham says. Her student building would pregame in the common room before going to the clubs and bars downtown, “that’s really when you can easily mingle with people,” she says. 

Her classes had 50 plus people in them and were primarily lecture based. She didn’t have the chance to really get to know her classmates. The events her dorm put on, going to bars and trying out for the recreational sports team was where she met people. 

Going out to bars and clubs is a great way to experience another culture, meet new people and have a good time out at night. The general rules of being safe while drinking and when going out still apply anywhere. 

 

“I think my best piece of advice would be to stick with the same people that you left with, unless you leave with a different group of people that you know,” Peckham says. 

 

If you don’t want to always go out, “I would advise you that staying in and drinking, is just as fun as going out and usually cheaper!” Oertwich says.

 

“Every time I went out to bars or clubs, I always went with at least one person I knew,” Chasse said. “Especially in Europe, the clubs and bars were very busy and full of people of all ages. Having someone to go with made it feel safer and more fun.”

 

Chasse would always go to the city center where they would bar hop and explore different places. Exploring out at night was a fun way to find new places. 

 

Based on where you live it might be a long commute to the bars and clubs. Kelly traveled an hour by train to meet friends in Tokyo. She would only be able to stay for a few hours before needing to catch the last train home. 

 

“My dorm had a curfew at midnight, so I needed to make sure I knew when to catch my train to come home,” Kelly said. 

 

Even if the place you’re living doesn’t have a curfew it’s important to check when the last public transport home is because buses and trains alter their schedules past midnight.

 

“My friends and I got stuck in the capital at 3 a.m. one time and couldn’t catch a bus until 7 a.m,” McGrath said.

 

Keep in mind when the club or bar is closing and how many people are leaving it. In Oslo the trains stop running after midnight and there’s only a night bus. My friends and I got caught in a mob of a hundred people leaving a club and there was only one bus stop and the bus only came every hour. We didn’t fit into the first bus and instead of waiting we walked a few miles to the next stop. It was a great adventure but an exhausting and cold one (late fall in Norway equals early winter). 

 

“I think that as Americans we are expected to go crazy when we go out,” Macaluso says. “Especially while abroad but I just didn’t feel like that would’ve been really authentic to who I am or how I wanted to remember my time.”

 

It was more important for Macaluso to have really fun nights with friends, whether it was going clubbing or staying in and having a movie night.

 

Regardless if you’re a person who likes to go out a lot or not. Make sure that you have the proper identification paper’s in place. Morrison recommends getting a notarized copy of your passport.

 

“Many clubs want IDs for international people and you DO NOT want to bring your passport anywhere needlessly,” she said.

 

Bars and clubs abroad won’t always accept U.S. driver’s licenses as ID. At a student pub in Oslo, I got turned away at the door a couple times because they wouldn’t take my driver’s license, it was a bummer each time because I was with a group. 

Communication barriers are likely to pop up when traveling to places or living in an area where English isn’t the native language. Be open minded in these situations rather than frustrated.

Morrison learned the language error was on her end when talking to a cab driver.  “He was so nice and I cannot remember how it came up but we were talking about height,” she said. “Now, being from the U.S. I have very little sense of the metric system.”

“I told him I was ‘uno punto siete metres’ which I thought meant 1.7 meters. For him it meant 1.07 meters. That’s a difference of about two feet. The cabbie kept saying no I don’t think that’s right? And I was very confused. I thought about it later and then it all made sense.”

 

The language barrier can also be a learning opportunity.

When living in Vienna, Rockow interacted in German and English with people. Sometimes, the locals would make her order in German to learn. 

“This gal was trying to help me because I was trying to order a wine spritzer in German, and I couldn’t say it right,” Rockow says. “She was like ‘I’m not going to let you order until you say it right.’ So, there are some people that are really helpful.”

Sometimes the learning opportunity comes with a sense of humor. 

Melissa Rockow studied abroad in Vienna, Austria, fall 2018.

At another point in Vienna when the weather was nice, Rockow and a friend went to a pool on a boat. But when getting out of the pool, “I ate it. I tripped down these stairs and my shin — They were metal stairs, so I fell, and my flip flops slid — and went completely backwards, it bruised my entire shin bone and it bruised instantly and swelled up instantly,” she said. 

 

“This guy who was trying to help me kept speaking German but then eventually spoke English. I just ignored him, and my friend went to get ice — The German word for ice cream is just Eis — so she kept asking for ice and they sent her to the ice cream store,” Rockow laughing about it. 

On a trip to Morocco, a friend took Yusem to a local bathhouse. “Not only did no one speak English there, but hardly anyone spoke French either,” she says. “ I ended up getting groomed by a little Moroccan lady hollering at me in Arabic and I definitely was out of my element.”

 

In that moment, Yusem reminded herself to be open and understanding, and to have patience with herself and the one’s she is trying to communicate with.

While traveling out of Germany, McGrath often ran into language barriers when asking for directions. When getting off of a plane in Portugal her and her friends couldn’t figure out the bus system to get to their hostel.

“Luckily, the group I travelled with collectively spoke six languages,” she said. “So, we essentially asked around at the bus station until we found someone who spoke one of our languages.

“In Europe, it’s not uncommon to ask around until somebody speaks English. You just have to put yourself out there and be brave, because most people are willing to help you or know someone who can,” she says.

Photo courtesy of Melissa Rockow: London, England
Photo courtesy of Melissa Rockow: Salzurg, Austria.
Photo courtesy of Melissa Rockow: Santorini, Greece

“When I was getting ready to go abroad I was told by someone in the IPO (International program’s) office that I should take the time to really know the city and country that I was staying in rather than going to other countries,” Macaluso said. “I’m not going to lie. I think that this may be the worst piece of advice I received before leaving.”

“I know that while studying abroad you are expected to focus on your studies, but my mom always taught me that traveling is one of the best forms of learning so I really took that to heart,” she says. “You will never get that time back, so take that weekend trip or day trip or week-long trip, whatever it may be, because that is what you will remember years from now.”

Traveling rounds out the whole study abroad experience and who knows when you’re going to be in that country or region again. Of course this isn’t an excuse to neglect the classes you’re in. But it’s possible to do both. 

There are day and weekend trips that can be done when you have the time. Or If your school has a break at one point that’s the  perfect time to take a longer trip. 

“Most importantly, research where you are going and have a rough idea of what you want to do/see before you get there,” Yusem says. “When you’re in these amazing cities for 48-72 hours, you don’t want to spend time planning out what to do and see and you don’t want to come back and find out about something that you would’ve loved to do. Once you’re there, don’t be afraid to ask locals for recommendations.”

Oertwich recommends planning ahead and looking for student discounts. For example, Norweigian airlines offer a discount on airfare using the code: UNDER26, which is intended for students. Also if you book through Omio, their youth tickets are cheaper, its age range is from 0-25 years. 

If you’re able to take a train or bus somewhere instead of flying it’s recommended. 

“There are all sorts of treasures within a short train ride of your home city,” Johnson said. “Trains and busses are also usually cheaper and more environmentally friendly than a flight to a different country.”

I recommend in the first two weeks abroad to take a day trip somewhere. It’s a great way to see more of the host country and also to get more comfortable traveling. Planning a multi-day trip can be stressful, especially when you’re still getting used to a new city. 

Rockow spent her first two months traveling when possible. Her friend group didn’t have class on Friday so they’d leave Thursday night on a bus then would come back Monday morning before class, “which they’ll tell you not to do but I say do it anyway,” she says.

In the last month of her program she stayed in Vienna as much as possible. “Travelling got really tiresome and expensive,” she said. “Also, we wanted to see more of the city because it’s so big.” 

Peckham recommends traveling outside your host city, but not to do it every weekend. 

“Obviously wherever you go you’re close to amazing places, but there is something to be said for staying in your host city and experiencing what they have to offer,” she said. “This also helped me become friends with a lot of Australians (over other Americans that were at my dorm) because I wasn’t out traveling every weekend, and I would do fun stuff with them (go to the beach, go camping, BBQs, playing sports, etc).”

Peckham recommends picking a couple of places that you absolutely want to go see, to budget for them, then work from there about where you want to go next.

“Trips can get expensive very quickly so it’s easy to blow all your money,” Peckham says.

About the Author

In fall 2018 I lived abroad in Oslo, Norway studying sports journalism and climate change journalism. Where I researched and wrote about the effects of climate change on the ski industry.

After my studies where over I went on a month and half long solo-backpacking trip across Europe. Where I visited: Edinburgh, Scotland, Copenhagen, Denmark, Hamburg, Germany, Munich, Germany, Vienna, Austria, Salzburg, Austria, Berne, Switzerland, Paris, France, Brussels, Belgium, and Amsterdam, Netherlands.

I am a senior journalism and media studies major at Linfield College. My hometown is Seattle, Washington.