The procrastination for writing my first blog post has lasted six months, but better late than never! Writing about experiences abroad is important, as many students considering foreign exchange look towards these posts for information about what to expect. I can still remember when I first began the draining study abroad application process, I would often read CIEE student blogs to remind myself why I chose to spend a year of high school in another country. Now I suppose it's time to continue the cycle and give back to the blog community (even though this is an extremely late start). Hopefully, a few of these tips and experiences I'm about to share will inspire someone out there to apply.
Applying & Before You Leave
Committing to an entire year, or semester abroad is a big decision. Before you apply, it's important to ask yourself why it's something you're willing to experience. Sure, you have the stereotypical explanation you put on the application about "experiencing a new culture" and "learning a new language" but taking the time to define your goals will not only keep you energized and excited throughout the application process, but also help you make the most out of your time abroad. Make a physical list of things you hope to accomplish and keep it somewhere you won’t forget it. However big or small your goals are, you are 42% more likely to achieve them if you write them down. Some of the best personal goals I've come across from fellow study abroad students include:
"Becoming as much of a 'local' as possible in my community"
"Forming a life-lasting bond with my host family"
"Learn how to cook the typical food of my host country"
"Becoming fluent!" (The most common goal I've heard)
"Make a second 'home' for myself"
After applying and getting accepted, make sure to say proper goodbyes to your friends and family. Being homesick is a challenging thing to go through, and studying abroad can be a very lonely experience. Going through all that by yourself will make you a stronger, but throwing a giant party and maybe crying a little with friends and family will give you a satisfying goodbye and remind you how supported you are. One of my biggest regrets is leaving my hometown quietly without a giant "BANG" to look back on.
Arriving to a foreign place where you'll spend the next year of your life is a terrifying concept. I remember when my heart almost blew out of my chest the first time I met my host family, and how nervous I was to talk to anyone on my first day of school. After a while, the nerves quiet down and you begin to accept strange "foreign" behaviors as a new normal, but cultural differences can be hard to deal with at first. Being in a country like Spain, their culture does not differ so dramatically from my home in Houston, Texas. I still experience things that I've always been accustomed to such as hospitality, politeness, (and crazy driving) but there are a few things that I had to adjust to.
The first cultural difference that I struggled with seems silly, but a naturally introverted person like myself found it uncomfortable. In Spain and many European countries, the way people greet each other is with two kisses (one on each cheek). Your lips don’t actually make contact with the other persons skin, so it basically feels like you're just pressing your cheek onto someone else’s cheek, but for someone like me (a person who likes a lot of space), I found it unsettling at first. After a while, however, it became a good way to immediately connect and feel close with other people. Breaking the ice with a straight up kiss on the cheek is an amazing way to avoid awkwardness because it creates a sense of familiarity between you and other people. Such a small cultural difference seems silly to devote an entire blog paragraph to, but it's one of the things I like the most about Spain, and doing it so often has made me a more extroverted and confident person.
There are, however some culture shocks that you will never get used to and will probably not incorporate into your every-day life. One of my least favorite things about Spain is people's BRUTAL honesty. People here say exactly what's on their mind with absolutely no filter. This may seem rude to other people, but that's not at all their intention. People who don’t know you, or have forgotten your name will refer to your appearance when talking about you. Although I don’t love being called "the Chinese girl" all the time by people I haven't met (I'm only half Korean), sometimes an honest comment from a friend or host family member is helpful. One morning before school, I came down in sweat pants and my host mom commented "those make you look like a boy." We laughed about it and she helped me find a nice pair of pants to wear. Since then, my sense of style has improved dramatically and it's made me a more confident person. A seemingly rude comment about my dirty sweatpants actually improved my attitude towards clothes, and strengthened the bond between me and my host mom.
Dealing with things you might not like about another culture is a natural part of the study abroad experience. Try to get comfortable with them, maybe even use a few to your advantage, and culture shock will disappear within weeks.
I hope these tips have helped a few of you out there considering experiencing life abroad. I will try to be more consistent about posting these in the future!