Studying abroad is what sparked my interest in travel and has become increasingly popular among college students in the past decade or so. I spent a year in Madrid living with a Spanish family during my junior year of college at the University of Missouri.
As I always say, there's no right or wrong way to travel. It depends who you are and what you're trying to get out of your experience. It's true to say that a lot of people go abroad for the party. I won't lie when I say that I was absolutely stoked about the nightlife, and the prospect of clubs opening at 1am and staying open until 7am. However, there are ways to still enjoy the nightlife while stretching your experience to the max.
1.) Live with a host family.
Living with a host mother was the best thing I could have done while studying abroad. If you are studying with all foreign students, the chances that you'll get to speak much of the local language are slim. Having a host mom who spoke no English forced me to speak Spanish at home and with my American roommate in the house. As well, I got to adjust to different aspects of Spanish culture that I wouldn't have experienced if I lived in a dorm or apartment.
2.) Travel. But not too much.
The best part about living abroad, especially in Europe, is the accessibility to travel for cheap. Free weekends and short classes make it tempting to jetset as often as possible, but make sure you spend enough weekends getting to know your host country.
3.) Meet the locals.
This is the hardest part. When you're surrounded by only foreign students in a program with only foreign students, it's easy to stick to your little group. Frequent bars and restaurants away from the touristy areas. Participate in a club or activity. Many countries offer exchanges for people wanting to learn English where you get set up with them and speak English and the local language.
4.) Register for classes that allow you to explore.
Finding an art, architecture, food, or wine tasting class will allow you several opportunities to take field trips with your classes and learn about the city and local culture from a native. They may take you to places that you wouldn't have learned about otherwise.
5.) Leave the touristy spots.
This is one of the things that I definitely did not do enough of when I studied abroad and regret very much. While there is plenty to do in the city center and it may feel familiar because the amount of other foreigners around, there is so much to do outside of that. Staying in the tourist centers limits interaction with the locals and not to mention, is UNBELIEVABLY expensive.
6.) Get a job.
Visa permitting, some countries will allow you to get a part time job while you study. Depending on where you're located, teaching English or working at a local pub is a great way to get to know the culture and the language of where you are, and is a great way to meet friends outside of your program.
7.) If possible, find a program unaffiliated with your university.
While this isn't always possible or financially viable, studying abroad is also a way to meet different students from outside your home university. I recommend International Studies Abroad as a program with several programs all over the world that gets a lot of individual students from different universities.
8.) That being said, choose your program ALONE!
By that I mean - if possible, please please please please do not study abroad with a large group of people that you already know. Some people are more comfortable traveling to an unknown land with someone that they know, however, I highly recommend to avoid this. Stepping out of your comfort zone is vital in your study abroad experience. Allowing yourself to be completely independent from others allows you to make your own way and be able to reinvent yourself to your choosing. Plus, you'll meet tons of friends on your first few nights, so don't be afraid.
9.) Be aware of your host countries customs and laws before you arrive.
Going to be living in Paris? Don't put your elbows on the table at mealtimes! Going to Thailand? Don't touch someone on the top of their head. Living in Spain? Be prepared to split the restaurant bill evenly. There are a lot of little things that may be overlooked that will help you to prepare for life abroad. Learning these things beforehand will help you adjust more easily if you know what to expect. Obviously, there are things you'll notice that you won't come across on the internet, but it's good to prep ahead of time.
10.) Stretch your time.
I always encourage others to be abroad for as long as possible - mentally, emotionally, financially, and so you can be sure to graduate on time. Even if you're studying for a semester, take a few weeks before or after your program ends to backpack around the continent where you're living. You'll be thankful you did.
11.) Stretch your dime (but not too much).
Things can get expensive and add up. Some programs offer meals, which will allow you to save money to spend elsewhere. Watch the money you spend on alcohol and drinks (at clubs and bars, it adds up! but some places, wine is cheaper than water). But make sure you're not missing out on any key experiences because you're worried about saving money.
12.) Be aware that FOMO is very real but once you return, it'll be like you never left.
Leaving for an extended period of time may definitely amp up the FOMO, but know that the people that are your true friends will be right there when you get back. It'll be hard seeing your friends photos at tailgates, socials, parties, school events, and all together - but know that you're having the time of your life and they're probably even more jealous of you than you are of them.
13.) Don't say things like "this isn't normal" or "this isn't how we do it in America."
There is a difference between observing cultural differences and appreciating them, and pointing them out in an arrogant fashion. Nothing kills me more than when I'm on the tube in London with a group of American study abroad students and I hear them pointing things out as "not normal" or "not how it should be done." What is normal for you may not be normal for someone else, and it's great to notice those things, but be sure you're humble about it.
14.) Be open to change.
Remain openminded to the change that you will go through during your time abroad. You may be a different person when you return, and that's okay. Being abroad, it's so natural to revert back to old customs of home, but remember, you're only abroad for a short amount of time. Embrace the change.
Studying abroad is an experience that you'll have one time. And as I said, there's no wrong way to do it. Just be sure that you are maximizing your time to the best of your ability and getting the most out of your experience as you can.
Alyssa Chassman is a travel blogger and writer. Follow her on Instagram at @thewanderlist_ to see more about her adventures abroad.