I’ll no longer be a study abroad student in a few days.
It’s been the most life-changing, eye-opening experience of my life, and the best decision I’ve ever made. It is, however, glamorised on social media. Studying abroad is fantastic, but it is not easy.
I should preface this column by saying that I’ve always believed that “everything happens for a reason,” and this semester was no exception.
I don’t have any regrets. I’m writing this to encourage anyone considering studying abroad to follow my advice. If I could do it all over again, there are a few things I would change to make the most of my time abroad. First and foremost, my preparation for study abroad in the fall could have been much better.
Find someone who studied in the city you intend to visit and schedule a meeting with them before you leave. My study abroad buddies and I always joke about how everyone back home will be sick of hearing about our adventures in Europe. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Anyone will be antsy for someone to pay attention to them.
I have valuable information about being a student in Barcelona — the cafés with the best Wi-Fi, the best bars, the worst bars, the best places to live, the cities you should visit on weekends — all of it is ready to be shared. Recognizing some local favourites from someone who has lived there for a few months will help you find your groove as you transition.
Last fall, on top of my schoolwork and extracurriculars, a new online form for my study abroad programme appeared in my inbox. They were forms that I had put off until the very end of December because I was already overworked. One of those forms would have allowed me to have a Visa mailed to me. However, because I postponed them, I missed the deadline. As a result, I had to drive all the way to New York City on a Wednesday before finals to request a Visa.
I had to return a few weeks later to pick it up, but thankfully, I was able to do so. I got lucky because I saw a few students crying in the lobby because they hadn’t prepared even the smallest detail. It was one of the tensest times of my life.
When I finally got around to filling out these forms, they only took me about five minutes each — much easier than they appeared. Second, I assumed that my Spanish skills from freshman year would suffice. If I could go back in time to the fall semester, I would download Duolingo and force myself to practise at least a little bit every week.
While I’ve learned a lot of the language now, knowing a few key vocabulary words, in the beginning, would’ve been beneficial when adjusting. I got an international plan from my home phone carrier right before I left. Although it encouraged me to look up and appreciate my surroundings more frequently, it was useless unless I was connected to Wi-Fi.
When you arrive in your city, you should definitely get a SIM card. The data will be more reliable, and you’ll need it to find your way around unfamiliar areas or to get last-minute train tickets when you’re in a hurry. Once I arrived, my programme — and I’m sure every programme does this — offered tours of various city attractions that students could sign up for at the start of the semester.
I only signed up for one, and it was here that I met the friends with whom I spent my time in Barcelona and travelled throughout Europe. It was a food market tour, and while I was still getting to know the city, it was somewhere I felt comfortable returning to when I needed to kill time between classes.
These programmes are a great way to get personalised tours and an even better way to make friends while everyone else is looking for them — and as someone who enjoys making friends, it can be difficult to do so while abroad. I wish I had taken advantage of these because many times the price was only five or ten euros for a short tour that I ended up having to do myself.
Even though moving to a new country was overwhelming and I didn’t have the energy to dive into it all, it’s still something I’d recommend to study abroad students. I also expected classes to be easy, but they are still difficult. I treated school as if it were a sham because that’s how it can feel when studying abroad — I was out there learning so much about the world, wasn’t that enough?
The information we were learning in class was fascinating, and it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to break away from the standard U.S. curriculum. I learned everything I could about Catalan culture, Spanish language and slang, traditional cuisine, European sustainability, and my personal favourite: travel writing.
While I frequently found myself putting schoolwork second, I gained so much valuable knowledge, and I’d advise any student to take advantage of the teachers’ willingness to help American students learn about the rich culture of their base country. Maybe I lied about having “no regrets.” I do have one regret: the manner in which I packed. During my first few weeks in Barcelona, I spent a lot of time shopping. OK, I guess I still am.
As I pack my belongings to leave my apartment, I notice that I already have a suitcase full of clothes that I brought from home but never wore. In Europe, fashion is distinct and frequently less expensive. My usual class attire of a sweatshirt and sweatpants or leggings wasn’t going to cut it. Keep this in mind as you consider whether to pack that extra Penn State sweatshirt in your suitcase. Despite this, the one thing I quickly learned, and the most important piece of advice I can give someone, is to keep an open mind and stay positive. It is unavoidable for things to go wrong when travelling to new places. Is it impossible to get a taxi with an hour’s flight? Is your hostel filthy? Disagreements between friends? It can and will become frustrating. However, you must take a step back and remember where you are. It’s your greatest opportunity to see the world in your life, so being pessimistic will only dampen the memories you’ll reminisce about next year when you’d give anything to be back. Fill out the application now, and I’m just a text, call, or email away from giving you more advice if you want it.
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