As I was making the daunting decision to study abroad, millions of questions cluttered my brain. The fear of not knowing exactly how this experience was going to unfold made me completely paranoid. Knowing that many of you other future exchange students probably feel the same way, I wanted to offer a bit of advice as you embark upon this amazing and thrilling journey.
When your day starts with the micro driver asking, "a donde vas?," and ends with a, "buenas noches," from your host family, your brain is definitely exhausted from hours of Spanish. At times, speaking solely in a foreign language can be overwhelming and tiring, so I recommend that at this point, you listen instead. Hearing the way locals pronounce each word and syllable can be just as educational as trying to form the words yourself. Being able to listen to and comprehend a language is a vital part of becoming fluent.
Distance Yourself From Home
It can be tempting to stay in constant contact with your friends and family, but that's not why you are here! The purpose of studying abroad is to have your own personal journey, growth, and experience in a new place surrounded by new people. If you are still tethered to your world back home, it will alter your experience abroad and prevent you from fully immersing yourself into the new culture you have traveled to be apart of. My best advice is to have a weekly video chat call with your family and try to keep texting to a minimum in between calls. Not only will this allow you to focus more on your experience, it will also give you more to discuss with your family in your video chats!
I cannot stress this one enough! I have been journaling at least one page every night since I've arrived in Chile, and it has been the best thing I've done so far. It's a great way to look at the progress you've made over the course of your trip, and to see how you felt on the first day versus how you feel in the present. I often read through my journal and learn more about myself as well. For example, I realized that at first, I completely overestimated everything here. On my first day, I thought that I would never be able to navigate the micro system, that i would not make many friends, and that my spanish would barely improve. On the contrary, here I am today, taking the micro everyday to school, with dozens of friends, and speaking spanish twice as well as I did when I arrived. Seeing your development is incredibly rewarding and crucial to maximizing your experience here. If you can't see how far you've come, how are you supposed to recognize the self growth you've traveled to experience while abroad?
Compartmentalize your time
Due to the incredibly exciting and overwhelming nature of studying abroad, you will mostly likely want to share your experience with someone who truly understands you (literally!). By this I mean you may be tempted to spend all your time with fellow CIEE exchange students. While these colleagues will in all likelihood become lifelong friends, it is important to divide up your time among exchange students, family, and school friends. If you choose your english-speaking friends over everyone else every time, it will undoubtedly hinder your language comprehension and fluidity. Additionally, it will minimize your exposure to important cultural experiences in your host country. I find it best to do the more touristy activities with my exchange friends, and experience my new culture with my family and school friends.
Put yourself in their shoes
Remember that one foreign kid in your school that didn't speak perfect english? The one you never really had the patience to have a meaningful conversation with? Now, that's you. While the people in Chile are much more accepting than Americans are of exchange students, there are still many instances where I definitely feel like "the foreign kid." Whether its being laughed at for pronouncing a word wrong or simply not understanding what's going on, being the exchange student has its challenges. Try to remember how you felt about "that one foreign kid" at your school. You probably laughed when they spoke incorrectly, chuckled when they didn't understand you, or pestered them for doing things differently than people do in your culture. You never meant it in a mean way, but it was just amusing that someone would do things so differently than what you are accustomed to. The people you will encounter while abroad are exactly the same. When a crowd of your classmates burst into laughter after you say something incorrectly, they are simply entertained by your "foreignness." They have no intentions of hurting your feelings, so try to let the comments roll off your back, and put yourself in their shoes.
Dress for comfort
I speak from personal experience on this one. I woke up bright and early on a wednesday morning to go on a small road trip with my host family. "Dress warm," they said. The warmest cloths I brought with me were jeans, vans, and a coat meant for Fall weather, not snow!
When we arrived at our destination in the Andes Mountains, I immediately regret not wearing ten more layers. Luckily, after a few minutes the feeling in my feet receded and the cold was more bearable. We spent the whole day hiking through the snow, sledding, and building snowmen. I can honestly say this was the most beautiful view I had ever seen and one of the most thrilling adventures thus far on the trip, but the experience would have been much more enjoyable if I had been dressed properly. Needless to say, look up the weather of your destination, and dress accordingly.
As a culture, Chileans are sleep deprived. They party until 5am and wake up for work at 9, only to do it all again the next day. Do not feel pressured to match their pace. After a day of waking up early for school, learning, and consistently speaking a foreign language for at least 10 hours, you will be tired! Sometimes you have to say no to an episode of your favorite show on netflix or hanging out with friends, and choose that extra hour of sleep instead. It truly is worth it.
Drop Span¡sh D!ct and ask some questions!
Technology is a blessing and a curse. Having the ability to look up any phrase you desire in another language can be helpful, but will also impede the language-learning process. You will not reach your maximum potential by translating everything. You learn best by learning the language, in the language. Therefore, when you do not know a word, describe it to a friend using words you already know, until they understand what you are trying to say, and then they can tell you how to say it. This way you can practice using the spanish you know already, and learn new words and phrases in the process.
Join a Club
Do you have a hobby? a sport? an instrument? When you start school abroad, make sure to ask a teacher or a friend what extracurriculars your school offers. It's a great way to become friends with people who share similar interests as you, and can offer a bit of normalcy to this otherwise bizarre experience. I love to sing, so I joined the choir at my school. SInce then, I have become friends with so many new students from other classes, and feel a little more at home here. Being able to do something I love, and that I would usually being doing everyday in the U.S., makes being abroad a little less scary, and a little more normal. Another perk of joining an extracurricular is that you may get to go on trips! Just this weekend I went to Santiago with my choir for a competition! (pictured below).