There are few experiences that offer as much life-changing opportunities and individual growth as spending time abroad. Traveling and living abroad can be very scary and intimidating at first. You may not know the language or culture, let alone where the country is located on a map. I choose Istanbul, Turkey, as my abroad destination for various reasons and tried my best to maximize my study abroad experience to the fullest. Hands down, studying abroad was one of the greatest life changing experiences for me and has shaped me into the global citizen I am today.
While studying and living abroad, you are not only learning about that particular foreign country and taking advantage of its sightseeing and traveling, but you’re learning about yourself – your characteristics, your capabilities, growing into a well-rounded individual and exposing yourself to new and challenging situations. Here are some tips to maximize and making the best of your study abroad experience.
1. Get out of your comfort zone
I cannot emphasize this anymore than what it is. When I arrived in Istanbul, everything was new and extremely foreign. My whole life was changing, so I embraced it to the fullest. Before I left home, I was comfortable with my routine, favorite places to study at, the coffee shop I would go to every day, my group of friends, my commute, my job, my weekend plans, but I felt like I wanted experience more. Sure, I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, but even the Bay Area is a bubble within itself and I didn’t wanted limit myself. My life while studying abroad was about taking risks and challenging myself, stepping outside of my comfort zone and growing emotionally and mentally.
Traveling to Istanbul was the first time I traveled alone without family or friends or any sort of connection. I didn’t know a word of Turkish, had no clue where I would be living, didn’t have the address of my apartment, or any idea what I was setting myself up for. I landed in an intense snow blizzard that afternoon, was overcharged for my taxi ride, and was dropped off at the gates of my university where two security men, whom I communicated with through Google Translate, helped me with luggage and kept me entertained until my landlord showed up.
You need to prepare yourself to take risks, challenge yourself, explore, and do things that will make you uncomfortable. There is nothing more exciting than immersing yourself into another culture to fully grasp and understand its people, dynamics, and history of that country and community. Don’t hesitate to pick up a phrase book or take a language course. Make a list of the country’s famous dishes and set goals to try its different foods – street food in foreign countries is always the best! Check out local dive bars or cafes and “hole in the wall” places. Join a club or sport at your university or local non-profit – you will meet so many amazing individuals that will have similar interests. If you identify as being shy, get out of your comfort zone and try breaking the ice by introducing yourself in their native language. Researching local events or festivals are a good idea to capture the country’s culture and characteristics as well.
If you’re on the fence of studying abroad, trying making a pros and cons list for your reasons. One of my main reasons for my decision was to challenge myself and offer myself a life-changing experience. Your experience and opportunity abroad will forever imprint an impact in more than one way.
2. Challenge yourself and be adventurous
In addition to getting out of your comfort zone, challenging yourself and setting goals go hand-in-hand with creating the best of your study abroad experience. Studying abroad is not only about your academic courses, but also embracing the country or city’s culture, history and geographic location too. You will find yourself having to assimilate in different ways – grocery shopping, ordering food, using public transportation, traveling to different cities, meeting with your classmates or professors.
Life should be about taking chances and going on adventures. Your opportunity abroad will be a chance to obtain important life skills and experiences that will serve you in your future career and overall life decisions, along with discovering yourself. Otherwise, you end up with no stories, memories, and a negative experience. Challenging yourself is not supposed to be easy. A few ideas to take that first step and setting your goals to enlighten your experience:
- Visit a place you’ve never heard of. It could be a beach, or local restaurant or district or historical spot. Take advantage of your exploring your city. Be adventurous.Enjoy an afternoon at local coffee shop or restaurant alone. Being abroad you will see that eating and drinking coffee alone is not always pitied. Your perspective being abroad will change and will definitely be worth it.
- Be spontaneous when someone invites to do something or go somewhere new. Be intentional in seeking opportunities that you would not picture yourself doing at home. You may find yourself falling in love with a new hobby or interest or type of food.
3. Hello! Hola! Hallo! Bonjour! Marhaba! Merhaba! Ciao! Ni Hao!
The diversity of language is a beautiful concept and you will soon discover languages with overlapping words and connotations. I would highly recommend familiarizing yourself with some basic greetings and phrases of the local language. You will find that a lot countries have English as their second language and most times you will be able to get by. However, natives love when foreigners are interested in learning their language and culture. It won’t hurt to pick up language translation book before arriving to your destination. Having a foundation and some language skills will keep you from being in the dark. You will also find yourself picking up phrases and words while traveling and assimilating with people.
4. Plan day and weekend trips
Take advantage of where you will be living at for the next few months or year. Though you may be residing in one city, that doesn’t mean you are limiting to seeing that one city. I suggest planning day and weekend trips to neighboring cities and countries. Many countries have excellent means of transportation with trains, buses, ferries and planes. I suggest looking into weekend destination or research sites you may be interested in visiting. There could be specific museums or religious/history sites in mind. Research, plan, and map out a route that you can explore and into a memorable adventure.
I suggest not to pre-plan or pre-book weekend trips before you get to your destination country. Before getting to Istanbul, I thought about booking trips to Greece or Egypt beforehand, but I’m glad I didn’t. You will meet people who will want to travel and experience the journey with you, and you will find something to do all the time, so you never know how things will affect your plans before arriving.
I recommend to not only travel to neighboring countries but really explore the country you’re in. I mapped out my spring break exploring Eastern Turkey, Georgia, and Southeastern Turkey. I planned it where I met a couple of friends from my program in along the way and then I met people who were traveling alone too. I also “couch surfed” for the first time too! This was one of the most valuable experiences of my life. You probably will never get another change to explore your region this easily again – you’re already there, and better to take advantage of the opportunities you get.
5. Keep a travel journal
Many of my friends that I met while abroad regretted not keeping a journal or documentation of their experiences or travels. Whether you keep a travel journal that you write in once or twice a week or write on a blog for your family and friends to read, I highly suggest keeping a travel journal to document your memories. You will be grateful for it when you reminisce on your experiences and what you allowed yourself to be exposed to or the people you met. I bought myself a medium-size travel journal my first week in Istanbul and promised myself to write in it at least every other day or at least jot notes down. I also kept brochures, postcards and stickers I collected when visited certain places of cities. This travel journal will be the greatest souvenir you take back home with you and will be something you hold onto for a lifetime.
6. Document your travels and memories
In addition to keeping a travel journal, make sure you take as many pictures and videos. A lot of people I met said one thing they regretted was not taking enough pictures of places we visited or the people we met during our travels. I utilize my phone and a digital camera when traveling abroad and learned to print out the pictures and a place them in an album with the names of the people and places I’ve visited. It’s another wonderful way of holding onto those memories. As you travel to different cities or countries you will meet people along the way that will leave an impact on you and you will want to remember them and possibly meet up with them in different parts of the world. Remember – when abroad, you will network with people from all over the world, and it’s a beautiful thing to be able to reconnect with them years later in a different country and reminisce on shared memories and experiences.
7. Limit your phone/video time with family or loved ones at home
You are in a foreign country, far away from your family and friends, but don’t spend all your days and nights on the phone with them. You will miss out on experience and memories that you won’t get again. I called home almost every day or every other day, but it would be brief and short. We designated one day a week where we would video chat with each other and talk about our week and what we did, My dad encouraged me to take advantage as much as I could to explore and learn while I was abroad. Being far from home is hard, and it can be difficult if you feel like you have to be consistently tied down to them or to your phone while physically so far away. But doing so may cause you regret and to limit yourself from the challenges, opportunities, experiences you can offer yourself. Some friends had their parents or siblings or significant others visit while abroad; this helped them realize their self-growth and interests while being away from their comfort zone and what they knew.
8. Decide where to live: student housing vs. with the locals
Living situations can be exciting yet tricky, especially when you have no prior knowledge or familiarity with an area or country. When I studied abroad in Istanbul, I deferred living in student housing because I wanted to be immersed with the community. I connected with Turkish students on our Facebook group page and was able to locate an apartment minutes away from my university campus. My apartment was located in a nearby gated neighborhood where families, university students, young professionals, and elderly people resided. I had a beautiful view of the Black and Bosphorous Seas and was walking distance from the local market and public transportation, and I was minutes away from downtown.
My apartment was shared with three other international students where we were able to connect on different levels. Living on campus in student housing is not a bad idea – you will still be able to connect with locals and accessibility to different resources as well. I recommend researching reviews on neighborhoods and people’s experiences with their living situations to get a better idea of the community you will be living in. There is also the option of living with a host family too. A few of the individuals I’ve met throughout my travels chose this route and shared it was great experience as the families exposed them to local restaurants and helped with learning the local language.
9. Make travel arrangements
In most cases, when traveling abroad, you are responsible for your own travel arrangements. When I say travel arrangement, I am also referring to the paperwork and medical needs as well. I suggest looking up your host country’s visa requirements and vaccination requirements. Each country’s visa requirements will vary depending on what type of nationality you hold. If applicable, schedule an appointment with your consulate as soon as possible. Oftentimes applying for a visa can also be done via mail, but make sure you check online or call your consulate and speak with a representative. Many agencies will ask for proof of vaccinations before going abroad. Schedule an appointment with your primary doctor and request for an annual physical and update on your vaccinations. Host countries want to make sure you are healthy before entering into their country.
When purchasing your ticket, shop around before you confirm and purchase. There are a few student-priced options on the web that can be beneficial. Research the distance and public transportation between the airport and your destination, whether it is the university or apartment or meeting point with your host. I purchased a one-way ticket to Istanbul from studentuniverse.com. I left it open-ended because I didn’t know where I would end up, but I knew I wanted to take advantage of my traveling experience in the region.
10. Keep your finances in mind
My best advice is to save as much money as you possibly can before you study abroad. Living abroad will teach you how to manage your finances and budget if you’re smart about it. I saved for months before going abroad and every time I decide to travel abroad, I financially had to prepare myself not only for my travels but for my responsibilities at home too. Remember, you still have to pay your credit cards on time! Remember to disconnect your cell phone and contact your bank and let them know you will be abroad so they don’t hold your money. Unless you will be receiving financial assistance from your parents or loved ones, your income while abroad will be very minimal. You don’t want to limit yourself from certain experiences or activities because of finances.
You will find that most countries utilize credit or debit cards with chips. This being said, you don’t have to worry about traveling with a bunch of cash. It is important to notify your bank and inform them about your travel plans but make sure you have a backup card just in case your bank discovers any fraudulent activities. Most countries have ATM machines as well, but be aware that you will be charged a certain percentage fee for international transactions and some businesses may charge you an additional fee for using your credit card.
You can live your dreams by making them reality and maximizing your opportunities and experiences to its fullest. When abroad you will be constantly busy meeting new people, trying new foods, traveling to new cities and countries, challenging yourself day in and out, and overall having fun and enjoying life from a new perspective. Living abroad is a life-changing experience on various parts of life, whether it is educational, personal, professional, and/or intellectual.