Tag Archives: learning

Tips and Tricks for Studying Abroad

One thing that’s amazing about coming from the U.S. to Europe to study is the immense difference in spatial recognition you recognize almost immediately after entering Europe. You’ll notice that the little map on the screen in front of your seat on the plane flies from one country to the next in what seems like 30-60 minutes (yes, that short) and the lines that you see on that map don’t recognize state or provincial borders but rather whole nations. It blows me away that nations can be so tightly packed together and yet so vastly different.

 

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Regions of the U.S. certainly have their own gross differences – the busy pace of the coasts versus the slow lifestyles of the Midwest and South, the drastic differences of English accents across regions (Southern drawl, New England accent, Cali slang, Midwestern accent, etc.), and even the hospitality of the states bathed in sunshine (the South and the West) versus the more distant demeanor of those of us in the North/East. (New Yorkers aren’t mean! We’re just cold and busy!) But ultimately, traveling the U.S. is still exploring American turf. You’re under the same federal jurisdictions, you share the language, and most likely you’ll be at least somewhat familiar with the culture.

Not in Europe. It’s fascinating to live on a continent where driving an hour and a half to the Northeast, I’d be met with Belgian German. An hour after, we encounter Germany. Driving east would lead you to the romantic world of Italy, and even further east and you’re in Eastern Europe, a very different place pretty separated from Western Europe in terms of culture and inclusion in the international realm.

Recently I spent spring break traveling with a bunch of people including my friend from New York, friends from my study abroad program, and some of their friends. We went to Cologne, made a little stop in my hometown in Germany, and then flew to Rome.

 

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Maybe it was just the gritty vibe I got from Cologne (Germany), but this cathedral looks much better filthy, on a snowy day.

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I promise, Rome’s Coliseum is much more impressive in person. Out of maybe 500 pictures, only two of them really dented the vast and magnificent beauty of these ruins.

 

It’s fair to say one of the things all of us international students studying abroad in Europe look forward to is traveling. I mean, why wouldn’t we? We were all bold enough to leave our homes, probably for a place with a new language, and a very different culture… so why not take it further? This blog post is based solely on my personal travel experiences, and I hope the advice in it is helpful to those of you who are already travelers or look forward to studying abroad. Of all the traveling I’ve done, traveling as a student abroad has been some of the most enlightening and interesting experiences I’ve had, and along the way I’ve picked up many tips and tricks that I hope will make traveling a breeze.

10 Do’s and Don’ts of Studying Abroad:

  1. Do plan ahead. See what your cheapest travel options are, and compare prices between companies. Goeuro.com is great for comparisons, but make sure to also look into local car-sharing services (like BlaBlaCar here in France) as well as cheap bus options (like Flixbus, a personal favorite) and airlines (Ryanair is amazing in Europe).
  2. Don’t go crazy trying to plan all the details ahead of time. Give yourself extra wiggle room while traveling. You’ll never know when you (and maybe your friends) want to stop for something to eat. You also don’t want to try to buy tickets for everything you’d like to see in advance because it could be that you all decide to wander around instead of sticking to a schedule, and you don’t want to be anyone’s mom pressing them for time.
  3. Do spend some time alone. I know you’ll be excited to travel with old or new friends, and you might feel safer in a group or with friends, but trust me – this will be necessary to balance your moods and process all the new things you’ll be encountering. I find that most people who travel together (especially new friends) sometimes squabble over small details with people they really like, even over really small things! Most people can get over that, but I find that spending time alone like having breakfast by yourself at the hostel or taking a safe walk in the middle of a large public park in the afternoon can clear your mind tremendously and take the edge off being surrounded by people with their own ideas and agendas the entire time you’re abroad. Make sure to remember to prioritize some self-love and self-care.
  4. DON’T PACK EXCESSIVELY. I cannot stress this point enough, and it really should be the first point. For cheap flights in Europe, you pay for everything, including checked luggage. That means as a financially-strained student, your best bet is a carry-on full of re-wearable (and comfortable) clothing, one pair of shoes, only the essential toiletries, and 100 mL bottles of any liquids you may need. Save room in your luggage for souvenirs and things to bring back. You’ll definitely thank yourself later! Over-packing isn’t just impractical and annoying, but can actually hurt your experience. For example, in Rome, we found ourselves walking for hours every day because there happened to be a taxi strike! Now, please don’t let this happen to you. Me and my good friend were miserable walking around Rome, trying to find a cab, holding our huge carry-ons. Just remember, anything you might find yourself needing you can buy when you get there. Anything you can’t is probably not a part of this society and you won’t need it to survive. Take the leap of faith and enjoy the raw experience for what it is.
  5. Do try and befriend locals! The best way to get to a know a place is through its people. Not only will they be able to help you with the practicalities of their home but they will have the best insight on what to see, do, and eat. Plus, you may end up with a new life-long friend.
  6. Don’t eat at super touristy places, at least not all the time. I get it, you’re hungry. You’ve been walking all day and you see a gimmick food place really near to the last tourist destination you went to. If you can, try to look up places with good ratings or get recommendations ahead of time. I know this is a little bit more work, but it’s always worth it. Those of us coming from big cities know very well that tourist areas are over-priced, and often offer the worst quality of foods that the city has to offer. At first, I thought Rome’s food was waaaay overrated. I was disappointed with the Italian culinary experience I had been fantasizing about for years. It wasn’t until my Roman friends reached out to me on Facebook and gave me recommendations, or when I started looking up popular restaurants on Google, that I found myself in food wonderland. However, keep in mind that if you need something quick and small to keep you going, you don’t have to avoid all the tourist spots forever. Just try not to eat there for all three meals, all the days you’re there!

 

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Pizzeria Bonci in Roma. We made friends with William, pictured behind the counter, a local from Astoria, Queens now living in Italy. He told us that he plans to open restaurants in Chicago this upcoming year and New York the next!

 

  1. Do something every day. There’s no point in wasting time, money, and energy traveling to a new spot just to hang out in the Airbnb, hostel, or hotel. If your friends are feeling lazy, suggest finding a new eatery or a park where you all can lounge. If no one wants to leave, go do something yourself. Being somewhere new is exciting, but if you haven’t been anywhere, what is exciting except for the actual transit?
  2. Don’t carry tons of cash at once. You might think that cash is practical, in case of an emergency and when you’re going out. You’re not wrong. In this case, I support carrying some cash on you at all times (I myself like to keep 30 euros on hand at all times – enough for a taxi ride home in an emergency). But some folks carry too much, and there are a couple of reasons I advise you all not to do this. The first is that if something happens (which I doubt it will!), you don’t want to lose all the money you have. The second is that carrying cash encourages you to spend more (at least according to most people), and if you’re traveling on a student’s budget you might not necessarily want to do that. As a bonus, most places will accept international bank cards. Stay safe, stay practical, stay financially responsible.
  3. Do try to supplement your education with some outside learning. I know, I know. I can practically hear the nerd jokes now. But think about it. Schools and classrooms prepare you practically all of your life to learn about the world in practical ways. For me, my high school Greek, Roman, and world history lessons flooded back as I explored ancient sites in Rome we used to discuss. Seeing these places brought real perspective to some of these lessons, and let me imagine history in a deeper context. Learning about different peoples’ culture allows you to critique the world of politics, pop culture, and social norms from broad viewpoints. Understanding what is happening in places you visit and what they’ve overcome as a state or a city or province is critical to your experience there, and the world we live in that is constantly changing around us. Hearing the German perspective on American politics, after beginning to understand the French perspective, helps me understand our own impact around the world as well as how to embrace the differences in our cultures. Some folks in the world never get to experience the intensity of formal education that we as college students get to, and learning practically is how they become informed adults. Even when we finish our education, we never stop learning, so start learning practically now. You will become a better, well-rounded person, and no one can ever fault you for your openness to learn and your expanding depth of knowledge.
  4. Don’t forget to LIVE YOUR LIFE. Breathe, and take it all in. Try new things, especially things you wouldn’t back home. Eat something your friends stare at you slack-jawed for trying. Attempt to speak the languages in the first words or sentences you might’ve picked up. Learn the culture by embracing it. Prepare yourself to be changed by your experiences. Try to leave all your preconceptions at the door. If you open up to the world, it’ll open up for you and you might just find many new things that shape who you’ll become.

 

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The Trevi Fountain in Rome gave me such good memories and high hopes for the rest of my adventures. Sitting and thinking in front of those gorgeous multi-hued blue waters underneath incredible and ancient art really brought me back to how lucky I am to have this opportunity.

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Filed under Tammie in France, Western Europe

Lifetime Impact

This study abroad experience has had a substantial impact on my academic and professional goals, but not in the typical sense of “now I know what career I want” or “now I know what graduate degree to get.” Rather, it has given me the courage to not settle for something I don’t believe in or don’t have a passion for. This experience abroad has given me the confidence to ***cliché alert*** reach for my dreams. Let me see if I can explain myself.

Like many other languages, Arabic is hard. It challenges my abilities constantly. It’s empowering. It’s frustrating. One moment I feel like I have it, then the next moment I don’t. Arabic and I definitely have a love/hate relationship. One thing that keeps me going is my passion for what it provides me: the ability to delve into the profundities of Middle Eastern culture. Speaking with natives for two hours a day in Arabic was a daily homework assignment that required discipline, but for me it was also a great privilege. Being a language learner means becoming vulnerable. That vulnerability broke down a lot of social and cultural barriers and gave me access to the hopes and fears of real people. The study abroad gave me a chance to check my arrogance at the door and really understand people. It enhanced and complemented my world view giving me insight into issues I had previously not had. This is a main reason for my study of Arabic aside from the fact that I have really come to love the Arabic language.

I didn’t choose to study this language just to have a competitive edge on job or grad school applications or to sound exotic; I chose it because I have a genuine desire for it. My future has been determined by the study abroad because I am no longer afraid to pursue something I am passionate for because conventional wisdom says I should do something else. I don’t have to let others dictate to me what graduate degree to get or what career I am best suited for. This experience has taught me that there is no one pathway to success. There is no one degree to get or job to aim for. Every person is different. We each wind our own way through life. Why not wind your way doing something you love?

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Filed under David in Jordan, middle east

Leaving the Comfort of Home

Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese

Before traveling to London, I remember reading this quote by Cesare Pavese and thinking I had some sort of notion to what it all meant, now I can say I truly do. There is so much truth hidden with the quote, not just the obvious truth but ones that are hidden so much deeper.  There are truths that you will never understand, unless you’ve studied abroad. Being in an unfamiliar place forces you to be 100% true to who you are, and to the people you come in contact with. Because once you’re in a foreign country, in a city where you know absolutely no one, every person you meet could potentially be your new friend and your new support system. Having been in London for some time now, I’ve formed by own family here. We like to call ourselves “The Millers”, we come from all backgrounds, from all across the country and have somehow managed to form this tight family. We support, joke, laugh, cry, travel and are there for one another. I can honestly say without them, my journey here would not be the same.

I’ve also learned that it is true that life is constantly off balance. Whether it’s getting lost in Paris and not knowing a single word of French, or not having enough change to get on the last tube home and having to walk for 2 hours, or even realizing you forgot your passport while trying to travel outside of the UK, I’ve learned to roll with the punches, to go with the flow and to understand that life abroad is never in balance.  That’s exactly how it should be! Studying abroad forces you to challenge everything you’ve ever known, to leave behind the ones you love the most and to embrace everything it has to offer. From the people you come in contact with, the amazing and sometimes strange food you will try, getting lost, learning to navigate without your phone’s GPS, staying in a hostel with total strangers and having the time of your life, it’s all worth the journey.

Before I came to London, I remember day dreaming about what it was going to be like, the people I was going to meet and the experiences I was going to have. I can say now, that my imagination had no clue, not even a small glimmer of what it was really going to be like. My time here in London so far has surpassed anything I’ve ever dreamed of. This whole journey is life changing and i cannot wait to see what punch I’ll have to roll with next.

Until next time…cheers from London!

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Filed under Abigail in England, Western Europe

A Fish out of Water and Battling with Homesickness

I think that at some point, we all fall into some sort of routine. When I’m at home in the US, typically, I’d get up, get ready for school, go to class, try to find time to eat, do homework and relax for a while. Since coming to Spain, I’ve tried to reestablish that since of normalcy within my daily routine. However, the more I tried to make everything like home, the more I actually found that I wasn’t enjoying myself. For lack of a better phrase, you really just have to “let Spain take you away.” Oftentimes, I would just ignore random people who talked to me a bit, out of fear that they wouldn’t understand me, or that I’d possibly offend them somehow.

This feeling was especially evident when I started classes here at the Centro de Español como Lengua Extranjera. My class is quite small, consisting of 2 Americans (myself and 1 girl from Texas), 3 Chinese girls, and 4 girls from Ghana. Initially, that was a big shock for me; I was the only guy in the class. My professor later told me that boys weren’t common in the classes, and that last year she’d had a class of all girls. It was especially awkward for me because all the girls knew each other already; they’d all had the same class together last year. I was the shy, new guy who barely spoke. For the first week or so, my professor was quite understanding of this, but eventually she did force me to participate. Even then, I wouldn’t really talk to them unless I had to. After class, I’d go home and retreat to my laptop, where I could chat with my friends on Facebook and see some familiar faces. Unfortunately, this made me miss home even more, and I felt incredibly alone and isolated. However, as time passed, I did start opening up to my classmates a little more. This happened a lot when I decided to take a cooking class once a week with a few of them. The Ghanaian knew English, so we were able to communicate if Spanish became difficult, and it was a great time. Sure, there are still times that I miss home and long to do things that my friends always do together, but overall, I am starting to feel like I belong here more.

I brought up the subject of homesickness to my host mom, who completely understood. Of course, she was sad that I was sad, but as she told me, “It’s okay that you miss your family and friends, but while you’re here, you’re as family to me as my daughter, and you can think of me as your mother.” That certainly does help; to know that you are wanted and loved by someone, even though you aren’t technically related, is a great feeling. I remember another instance that happened after a particularly hard day of classes. I’d forgotten to study for a quiz, and I hadn’t done well. My professor wasn’t happy with me, and she let me have it. After that, I just wanted to hop on a plane and go home. I didn’t say anything to any of my classmates as I left, but they knew I was upset. I took a nap, and when I woke up, I had a message from the other American student on my phone. She’d messaged me just to say how happy she was that I was in her class. She’d been the new girl last year, and she knew how overwhelming that could be. She also said that overall, I seemed to know Spanish quite well, and that Esperanza (our professor), though really hard, was a really good professor, and I would learn a lot. Lastly, she told me that if I ever had any trouble in the class, I could ask her or anyone else in the class, and they would gladly help me. After that, I felt a lot more comfortable and welcomed in class, and I can proudly say that I consider my classmates to be some very good friends of mine.

Then, there are a few times where something extremely unexpected happens, and I feel overwhelmed. For example, one morning, my alarm failed to wake me up. I woke up half an hour late, and was trying to move fast so that I could still make it to class on time. However, as I left my house and started walking, I noticed that it had rained the previous night, and the sidewalk was wet. I tried to be careful, but my crutches slid on the sidewalk, I failed to catch myself, and I took a nasty fall. My chin and the inside of my mouth were bleeding and I was having trouble getting up due to the wet sidewalk. I had no idea what to do. The university was still some distance off, and I had no band-aids on me. I could walk back home, but that would mean I’d be even later to class. Fortunately, a Spanish couple had heard and seen me fall. They picked up my crutches and helped me up. One of them then told me to wait there for a second, and ran off before I could object. He came a minute later with some tissues and a small bandage. I wasn’t expecting anyone to help me, but they did. They could have easily left me to fend for myself on the ground, but they didn’t; they helped me even though they had no idea who I was. I arrived late to class, but when my professor saw the band-aid and I explained what happened, she was just glad that I was ok, and, as they say in Spain, “No pasa nada.”

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Filed under Tyler in Spain, Western Europe

Culture shock absorbing, filling with energy

Today, the countdown until home is single-digit. Tomorrow, I make my way onto the ten day weather forecast; in case you were wondering about the forecast at hand, I can anticipate highs around 70, with 0% chance of rain and a coastal breeze. Here I am at stage 6,  possibly a bit premature, after weeks of cycling through stage 1-2-and-4, and sometimes stage 5 with nightly monsoonal rains and humidity constantly breathing down my neck. As someone who struggled with homesickness (or rather, mom-sickness) when going away as a child, it is beyond me that I have been here for almost seven weeks and have never fallen into the helplessness of homesickness. I am too busy enamored with the world around me. I have only really cried three times: once for lost luggage (with a bunda that allowed stores to be closed and my American money not to be exchanged), a few tears to a miscommunication at home that was more a release of stress surrounding me (the Internet, now that we have some consistency, is both a blessing and a curse), and alas, a few tears to “I just want to go home”–the end is so close you can almost taste it (which, even while I was crying, the people around me stared and invaded my personal space, which has been lost since June 15th). However, after every rain storm (or release of personal tears), rainbows are indefinite, and come with surges of realizing you are in the coolest, most different place you could be. The next day, even though you didn’t go to the German Bakery for breakfast, rainbows shined in the blue sky and the cumulus clouds were smiling, for these tears are momentary and understandable. Walking to the bus park, taking the bus (while sipping on a guava juice box), and walking the rest of the kilometers to University, are part of the coping. It may not feel comfortable, but it is comfortable knowing you are used to it. Then, when you least expect it, your Nepali advisor calls you one of her own students, even though you’ve known her for less than a week. Say hello to stage 5, where it seems as if my presence of being somewhere so different is not only filling my heart, but some of the hearts of the people here.

I am excited about returning home, but definitely anticipating stage 7; I can’t possibly understand how to repeat 7 weeks of academic and cultural intensity to each person who asks. I am also grappling with the fact that it’s not fair to my experience to have a default response, that the inquisitor may or may not understand anyway.  I’ve been doing my best to journal, but it still seems as if some of the best details will always fall through the cracks of your mind, doing their best work to your character rather than stored as a smiling memory. Additional anticipation for coming home comes from being gone since January– 8 months on the road and away from my home base of comforts. I am overdue for Mediterranean Climate, Mexican Food, and a large hug from my mom.

Nepal has been a place where everything is new, interesting, and exciting. Since our program spent almost three weeks trekking in the Himalaya, and another few weeks traveling around, the scenery was constantly changing and giving your brain something new to focus on. Little cultural differences, especially life in the villages, were hardly frustrating, minus the default modern conveniences. The biggest irritant I encountered was my role in Nepal as a woman. It was something I anticipated, but could never understand how to deal with. As a student at a women’s college, I am especially emboldened to believe my place in the world as a woman is well-deserved, and well-received. This notion was brought back to reality in instances such as being cut in line, being stared at everywhere, and one of the male Nepali students in particular who expected the girls to feed him answers as he sat back and stirred his tea. This was by far the most frustrating, but somehow seemed to embolden my strength as a woman, in taking to assignments and excelling, as well as taking to public transportation confidently, denying the constant beckoning for a taxi by the men on the streets. This was the widest cultural gap for me to be faced to bridge, but it never hindered my experience. This produced an emotional teetering between stage 2, where magic had diminished to frustration, and stage 4, where I would let this be part of the experience and be thankful for observing these differences firsthand.

There is comfort in waking up to the sounds of singing monks; there is comfort in expecting to get your feet dirty everyday, mud between your toes, as you walk through another dirty street soaked by last night’s monsoonal rains. There is some flattering in the adoration of the children who run up to you, eager to ask where you come from and practice their English. The culture shock is often absorbed by the excitement, and the differences that are experienced daily.  This gives us energy, and often times the energy that we need now, or can evolve from later. The fluctuations through this cycle are normal, as I cannot attest to being stable in one of those stages in the US. This is because life is always changing us, especially life so different from our constant ebb and flow of our daily U.S. habits. Those memories that do slip through the cracks, in being here, help to define our character. These, along with the practices of our daily life and norms in our new place, help us develop a new sense of perspective and outlook that is both infinite and ingrained. The stages of culture shock help us progress through, building off our knowledge and experience. Nepal is filling me to the brim with the energy from culture shock.

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Filed under Nicole in Nepal, South & Central Asia

An introduction to the frustrations of Russian language

All together, my trip from Jersey’s suburbs to St. Petersburg, Russia amounted to approximately 15 hours of travel. Partially the function of my seemingly perpetual jetlag, my first few days in Petersburg were almost inexpressibly overwhelming. I arrived with over two years of language study and relative confidence in my ability to hold everyday conversations in Russian. I quickly realized, however, that, with Russian, there is a huge difference between understanding language and producing intelligent responses. For example, on my first night, I managed through dinner with my host family using only the most curt, short responses. I was frustrated with my inability to express nuances and connect with my host family — an older couple who have lived in the city their entire lives  — at a more profound level.

The next day, I sleepily followed my хозяйка (Russian for host) to the institute where I am now taking my language and literature classes. Speaking quickly in Russian, my хозяйка pointed out how easily Soviet architecture in Petersburg can be differentiated from buildings erected prior to the 1917 revolution.

While I was not able to contribute anything to the conversation, I was quickly drawn into the history and was able to forget my language insecurities until we arrived at the institute. I’ve now realized that following and listening are the most valuable skills you can possess while abroad. Purely through paying attention to my хозяйка’s multiple monologues on the beauty of Petersburg during that first week, I was able to pick up numerous new constructions that I then attempted to store away in the Russian side of my brain. I realize now that, in the U.S., I tend to dominate conversation and constantly seek to share opinions, insight, and ideas.

So while I was initially frustrated by my inability to simulate these tendencies in Russian conversation, my experience in Russia became much easier once I realized that, at least for now, listening is more important speaking.

I’ve realized how lucky I am to have all of these new figures in my life guiding me through this language journey. In fact, one of the most positive experiences I’ve had with the language thus far is working with my native, Russian language teacher. In an attempt to simulate the intensity of a full year course, my language class meets for three hours a day, four days a week. The largest difficulty is not necessary the length of the sessions, however. In fact, it’s the size of the course — only three other students are in my level. Luckily, our instructor works really well with us and we are able to keep the classes light though simultaneously productive. So far, we’ve been reading the daily St. Petersburg papers, watching popular movies, and, of course, finding time for grammar review, as well.

While I can’t yet count myself fluent, I’m seeing slow and steady progress in my Russian, while simultaneously experiencing one of the greatest cities of the world. Yes, the first week was tough but I’m slowly regaining confidence and attempting to take advantage of everything Petersburg has to offer.

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Filed under Eastern Europe, Sona in Russia