Studying abroad in Spain changed my life. From the learning how to salsa dance to learning about the intersection of religions in Toledo, found that every minute of every day was a learning experience. Some of the best lessons I learned, though, were general tips about studying abroad — and I think these are tips that every person studying abroad should know.
1. If you’re wondering whether or not to leave it at home – leave it at home. Anyone who has studied abroad will agree that packing too much is a problem. I promise, whatever it is, you won’t need it. Shopping is the first thing you will want to do when you get to a new place. You’ll see what the locals are wearing, realize you want to look like that too, and then head to the store. The five-months-worth of adorable outfits you packed in your 50-lb. suitcase will sit in the corner of your room as you pile on more and more indigenous clothes and accessories. And when it’s time to go home, you will be at a loss to figure out how you’re going to get all of your stuff on the plane. So leave PLENTY of space in your luggage for souvenirs, and leave your three of your four favorite pairs of heels at home.
2. Pack simple pieces and neutrals. To make the most of your experience, you want to blend in – not stand out like a tourist. Wearing crazy patterns and busy accessories will make you stand out and immediately tell the locals that you are not one of them. Plus, you’ll be wearing the same clothes over and over again, so you’ll want pieces you can easily mix and match and ones that won’t immediately denounce you as a tourist. And as a bonus, it’ll be easier to incorporate your new clothes into your simple wardrobe!
3. Speak the local language. Just do it. Even if you’re a just beginning to learn it and even if you mess up. Locals will appreciate your effort and you’ll be able to practice your language skills so much more than you would be able to in a classroom at home. See my post on an awesome app to help you learn or brush up on a language.
4. Take pictures. And BE in them. I had no problem with the former – but the latter was an issue. I happened to take a class on photography when I was in Spain, so I had to take photos – and I’m so happy I did. It’s been eight months since I’ve been home, and I still reminisce daily. Every time I want to remember that one bar my friends and I went to, or the sight from the bridge overlooking Toledo, I just scroll through my photo album. And though I came home with hundreds of pictures, there are so many more I wish I had taken. On top of that, I keep kicking myself in the butt for not being in any of my pictures. Being in the pictures is the only way to put your stamp on a picture any person standing in that same spot could take. Years down the road, you’ll be happy you did this.
5. But look before you snap. While I insist upon taking pictures, make sure you don’t spend your entire study abroad experience behind a camera. The pictures are for when you’re home and looking back on your experience. But when you’re there, make sure you take the time to absorb the moment with your own eyes. Take in the smells, sounds, and tastes, too – those things you can’t capture in a photo. That way, the full memory stays only with you.
6. Don’t take hard classes. If you have to – okay. But if you can get around it, take fun classes and ones that won’t bog you down with work. You’re only in the country for a few months (or in my case, one!), so spend your free time exploring, taking pictures, traveling – not having to study for you next exam. That being said, make sure you still do all of your work! Just have fun with it.
7. Really think about whether or not you want to do a homestay. I did – and it was an enriching experience – but I wish I had chosen to stay in an apartment with fellow students. There were definitely perks to living with a host family: my host mom and her daughter were as sweet as can be, and I was able to practice my Spanish around the clock and see how locals live day-to-day. On top of that, I had delicious, authentic Spanish cuisine every day. But the downside was that I felt guilty every time I went out with my friends at night or traveled on the weekends instead of staying at home with my host family. Of course, I loved spending time with them – but I was only in Spain for a few weeks and wanted to spend as much time as possible exploring the city. My host mom worried about me when I was out late or gone for extended periods of time, and I hated putting that stress on her. In retrospect, I would have been more comfortable staying with other students who were as restless as I was.
8. Don’t spend every weekend traveling. Cut it back to every other weekend or every third weekend. Indeed, when studying abroad, you’ll want to travel to neighboring cities or countries while you have the chance, but remember that you chose your host city or country for a reason. I spent three out of my four weekends in Spain in cities other than Madrid. And while I’m elated that I visited Toledo, Valencia and Sevilla, I regret missing out on events and attractions in Madrid. There are numerous discotecas, museums, restaurants, festivals, markets and concerts that I could have visited had I not been away from Madrid almost every weekend.
9. But when you do travel, stay in hostels. This one a given, but if you were on the fence about it, now you know. Hostels are an unparalled gateway to meeting other travelers and locals. Plus, they’re almost always guaranteed to be less expensive than hotels. As a bonus, hostels usually host activities such as walking tours and bar crawls for the visitors to explore the town. Just make sure to travel in numbers or book private rooms (especially for the chicas) if you’re traveling alone. I definitely suggest Hostelworld for finding the best places to stay.
10. BUDGET, BUDGET, BUDGET. Now, don’t be a stingy, money-obsessed brute. But at the same time, don’t be like me and realize halfway through your trip that you’ve exhausted your bank account and have to ask your parents for a loan. My best advice is to figure out roughly how much you want to spend per week, including weekend trips, and do your best to remain within that budget. Don’t skimp on meals or must-have souvenirs. But don’t buy EVERY souvenir you see (plus you won’t have space in your suitcase), and don’t buy 15€ drinks every time you go out.
11. Keep an eye (preferably two) on your belongings. My friend Susan was traveling alone in Rome. She went to a shoe store and set her purse down to try on a darling pair of Italian kicks. She bent down to fasten the straps across her ankles and when she arose, her purse was gone. Lesson: make sure your belongings are never out of your sight. In Spain, I always held my purse under my arm with the zipper in the front where I could see it and the clasp against my side. Backpacks are tricky because they stay behind you; but in crowded areas and on public transportation, keep your backpack on your front or in your lap. It might look silly, but it’s better to look silly than be stuck in an unknown city without your wallet, passport, keys, phone and map because someone stole your bag.
12. Write stuff down. Keep a journal, blog or scrapbook. You don’t need to write a novel every day, or even every other day – but at least once a week, write down the highlights of your week, including people you met and restaurants you loved. Another idea – if you’re not a fan of writing – is to keep a photo diary, with captions that remind you of what you were doing or where you were when you snapped the photo. With Instagram and Facebook, this shouldn’t be a chore. Seriously, you’ll be elated in five years when you have a self-narrated depiction of your study abroad experience.
This list could go on for pages (in fact, I may have a follow-up post), but I think these twelve tips are the most useful for people, especially the YBTs, who are studying abroad for the first time. No matter what advice you accept, however, your study abroad experience will be one you will never forget.
Do you have any tips to add? Comment below!