Let’s face it: While studying abroad is a common experience in many people’s college careers, it’s a huge undertaking. If you’ve never traveled alone before, been out of the country or aren’t totally used to living independently, it may help to have some expectations before facing such a huge change.
I’ve been privileged enough to study abroad twice throughout college, but beforehand, I had never traveled internationally and only had flown alone once. Being an out-of-state student, I have adjusted to living away from my family, but the initial move to Kentucky (and to Italy) is always a bit rocky. Here are some tangible lessons I’ve picked up through my different journeys so far.
This feels like an obvious thing, but remember the timing and weather of when you’ll be abroad. For my short winter stint, I did pack some heavier clothing, but still avoided things that were too bulky and weren’t easily layered. I had one lighter winter coat, a couple pairs of pants and tops that were easy to layer and interchange throughout the trip. For my full semester abroad, I do wish I had packed more. I was scared of losing my luggage and packed only one large checked bag with layering tops and staple clothing. Packing between three to five pairs of pants, a few pairs of shorts, four to six basic tops and two to four pairs of shoes would suffice. Keep in mind what type of shopper you are as well; I only like thrifted pants, and the thrifting opportunities in a Southern Italy town are very limited. However, I don’t mind spending money on boutique tops or new shoes, and I will probably end up buying a new bag to either check or ship home.
Don’t rush planning and financing — make time for it
Most people in my program booked weekend trips with their roommates right from the jump, but remember there are so many people to meet and so many things to see. This is such a great time for growth and exploration, so recognize your comfort zone and know where you’re able to push it. I avoided booking trips immediately with all of my roommates which worked nicely, since we all wanted to go to different locations at different times, and I see them every day anyway. It’s refreshing to travel with different people; for example, I got to meet up with another KRNL staff member on a weekend where I decided to push my comfort zone and navigate the trains on my own. It worked out perfectly, and I was proud of myself for using that opportunity to do something different. Additionally, now that I’m a bit further into the semester, I can reflect on my lax attitude toward planning and booking experiences. While I am glad I held off so I could book the perfect trips with the best people, I’m now spending time budgeting out the rest of the semester through a weekly food/event budget, specific amounts allotted to trips and other expenses. I’m not holding myself back from engaging with the community and cultural experiences, but at least I have an idea of where I’d like to be financially and how much more I have to spend in certain situations.
The entire experience is the most ideal time to try new things since you’re living independently in a foreign country, surrounded by new people and opportunities. Introduce yourself to someone new, go wandering around town (safely), allow yourself to stumble upon new things while embracing different chances enthusiastically. It’s a time to be carefree, so don’t overload your course schedule, or set rigid expectations before arriving. Everyone reacts to different locations in different ways, so be open with the people, timing, places and everything in between! Try all the local foods (even if you end up not liking something), ask people what their favorite spots are and attempt to speak the native language, even if you feel a little silly. I feel so much more fulfilled in my journey by trying new things with new people that I may have not typically initiated myself. This experience has taught me how to be flexible while simultaneously aiming to end the day with no regrets or lost opportunities.
Be gentle with yourself
This is the most important thing to remember in my opinion. It’s okay and totally normal to be overwhelmed and lonely — almost everyone I’ve talked to in my program has felt that way at some point. Be kind to yourself on days where you may need to go grocery shopping but don’t have the energy or when you have to cancel plans because of your mood. Knowing what’s best for yourself is an important thing to learn before leaving. I found that forcing myself to be social ends up lifting my mood when I feel sad, but when I feel overwhelmed, my best option is to stay inside and find some books or movies to comfort me. Don’t feel bad when you have a lazy day, since it’s just your body signaling your need for emotional or physical rest. Know what things may help you get out of a funk and keep it in the back of your brain (or even make a digital/physical list so you have an easy access, go-to).
Ask questions and do your research
I know that I’m always happy to answer questions, but I also remember looking pretty extensively into the programs and locations I was considering. Your study abroad advisors can of course help, but I found myself most at ease when I had specific advice from other students. They’ve had the exact same experience. Look at TikToks (seriously, people have great recommendations and ideas), YouTube videos and even blogs that have student perspectives and guidance.
Studying abroad is a life changing experience, whether you do it for a week or a year. Remember that, like any other significant life moment, there are highs and lows to be conquered. However, I can’t imagine what I would have done without this amazing experience under my belt since it’s given me such a broader perspective on life. I’ve developed so many great soft skills, like flexibility, openness, cultural awareness and more. Your study abroad adventure awaits you, and remember to utilize all your resources (including me)!