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Study abroad do’s and don’ts

Last semester I studied abroad at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and it was an amazing experience and one that I’ll never forget. That doesn’t mean it didn’t come with its fair share of mishaps: I didn’t have my luggage the first four days I was in Edinburgh because the plane was too small to carry everyone’s bags. Despite the rocky start and other less-than-ideal circumstances, I wouldn’t change a thing about my semester abroad, and now I’m here to tell you how you can do the same. Here are my do’s and don’ts for an unforgettable study abroad experience.

Do connect with people in your program ahead of time and meet up once you’re abroad. There are usually group chats formed by your program head or by your host university to support visiting students, and you might be able to find someone who’s traveling from the same place or arriving at the same time. It’s nice to have a travel buddy and makes everything so much less stressful once you arrive, from figuring out transportation from the airport to buying bedding. Also, those group chats will often have opportunities to meet up with others once you’re abroad, in addition to any orientation events or meet ups organized by your program.

Don’t worry if you don’t make friends right away; just like in college, forming relationships takes time. Find spots where you can be a “regular” and build relationships over the course of the semester: for me that was a pub quiz on Mondays and a jam session at a cafe every Wednesday, but it can also be more informal meetups like meeting classmates at the same coffee shop to do work every Friday before class.

Do make friends local to the area or outside of your program, if you can. Some study abroad programs are more isolated than others, so this may be easier said than done. But making friends with locals can introduce you to other sides of your host city or culture that you wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. In my case, I was able to make friends with my flatmates, who were all from the UK, as well as my friends’ flatmates and their friends. But this could also mean talking to people in your classes, at cafes, or student events put on by your host school. Which leads me to my next point:

Do find a way to continue with your extracurriculars while abroad. I joined the dance society at the University of Edinburgh, and it was a good way to keep up my technique and meet people who shared a love of dance. It was also good to find an activity to keep me active, but don’t make the same mistake I did and buy a gym membership if you don’t have to. This one’s pretty specific to me, but this goes for everyone: 

Don’t expect yourself to turn into a whole new person abroad. If you don’t go to the gym regularly at Brandeis, you probably won’t when you’re abroad. And if you have questions about how things work at your host program/university, don’t be afraid to ask for help before you make a decision.

Do keep track of your spending habits and don’t be afraid to suggest making dinner once in a while instead of going out to eat. My friends and I shared dinner duties throughout the week, which made it cheaper and more fun.

Don’t succumb to FOMO. If you’re dead tired after an exam but all your friends want to go out, don’t be afraid to sit out one night! Study abroad is a time to take all the opportunities you can get, but you’re still a student, and you need to take care of yourself so you can keep enjoying your time abroad.

Do find out what public transportation exists in your area, sometimes it’s even free for students or young people! Figuring the bus system out can help you get to know the city, feel more like a local and help you not be so tired at the end of the day from walking all over the city.

Do travel to other cities or countries if you have the time and money to do so. Sometimes flights are less expensive than trains, but don’t make the mistake I did and book a return flight for a month after you want to leave Copenhagen. Ryanair is good for cheap travel, but sometimes their site may glitch, and they will try a hundred times to make you pay for a window seat or a bigger bag. That being said:

Do double check all travel dates and details before you leave for a trip. I found out my flight home from Edinburgh had been canceled a week before I was supposed to fly home, and ended up spending hours on the phone trying to get a new flight. It pays to double check ahead of time, or you might end up like me and take your friends to a freight train station in France at five in the morning, instead of going to the actual train station. Travel mishaps like these are bound to happen, so it’s best to stay positive and flexible.

Do keep track of experiences you have, places you travel to and people you meet. You’ll want to remember your time abroad, and it’s easy to forget the little things that made you laugh even a week later. I kept a journal with business cards from cafes I went to, tickets from the metro in Paris and a flyer for a student theater production my flatmate helped produce. I love looking back on it and remembering not only what I did, but how I felt while doing it.

My most important piece of advice, however cliche it may be, is to try new things and get out of your comfort zone. It really is what studying abroad is all about, so eat the food (haggis is actually quite delicious), dance the dance (going to a ceilidh was one of my highlights even though I sprained my ankle for the 328th time) and swim in the water (the fairy pools in March were freezing, but afterward I couldn’t stop smiling).

Good luck to all the Brandeisians going abroad this semester, and welcome back to everyone else. Who knows, if you follow these rules here in Waltham you might just be able to bring that study abroad magic into the Brandeis bubble.

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