I have enjoyed a great deal of fortune where study abroad is concerned. Taking my education elsewhere across the globe was a dream for me before I even knew where I would end up going to school. The fact that I got to do so twice, especially through two amazing Georgia State programs, provides me with the greatest sense of humility and gratitude I have ever felt.
My first trip was to the United Kingdom with the English department. I spent my summer trekking through the cobblestone streets of London, climbing the lush hills of Scotland, and rubbing elbows and singing folk songs with the Irish locals. I became immersed, physically and mentally, in a world I’d previously only known through literature and poetry. Next, I craved something entirely new. While the UK was the home of my discipline and keenest interests, I became attracted to the idea of experiencing something I’d never known before. So, I boarded a plane to Belize with the Department of Geosciences the following summer to study geography and environmental issues. I traded tea and scones for rice and beans, castles for Mayan ruins, and sprawling fields for caves and coral reefs. It was an adventure unlike any other.
Studying abroad twice has left me with more great memories and more learning experiences than I ever could have hoped for or imagined. Most importantly, though, I learned so much about how to truly immerse myself in the art of travel, growth, and the most pleasant forms of discomfort.
So, for those of you planning to study abroad, or even just considering it (which I thoroughly hope you are), here are the things I learned through my two remarkable trips.
1. Packing lightly is actually the most important thing in the world.
Seriously… it is so important to save space. First of all, you will want to buy souvenirs. Secondly, the expert way you shoved all of those clothes in there before you left will most certainly never work out the same way again. After lugging my slightly over-packed suitcase through train stations and the Belizean jungle, I can tell you… just pack light.
2. Plan carefully for how much money you actually plan to spend and stick to it.
This is actually something I did pretty well for both trips. Save as much money as you can, do some research on exchange rates, and budget accordingly. Already having a personal agreement about your finances before even leaving the United States will give you such a better sense of comfort while you’re abroad.
3. Never, ever, EVER skip out on seeing something because you’re tired or just not feeling it.
This may be the most important point on this list. You never know when you’ll be back in these magical places. You may never be back. You have your entire life to sleep and relax. You do not have your entire life to see that historical site or that museum or whatever it is on the agenda that day. Self-care is important, but if you’re just dragging that day, suck it up and get your feet moving. You’ll never regret pushing yourself but you will absolutely, 100% regret missing out on something amazing.
4. Go out of your way to interact with locals.
Some of my favorite moments of both trips were meeting people in the various countries. One interaction with a sugar cane farmer in Belize is a memory I will have for a lifetime. You cannot learn the same valuable lessons from books and websites that you can from actual, organic interactions with people who are different from you.
5. Do not allow your comfort zone to distract you from the things that really matter.
My comfort zone has notoriously been my worst enemy but I conquered it in many ways during my trips abroad. I have never known fear like the moment I voluntarily stepped off of a boat into Shark Ray Alley. As I lowered myself from the ladder and felt sharks and manta rays bump against my legs, I genuinely thought I might panic. But in that moment–the one where I really forced myself to branch out, I grew the most. I prioritized bravery over comfort and it became one of the most defining moments of my entire life.
6. Take way too many pictures.
7. Take alone time to reflect.
I definitely did not do enough of this during my first trip. My professor during the Belize trip made this a priority though, and I could not be more grateful. There is nothing like laying on a star-gazing deck after a long day of snorkeling a coral reef to really drive home each and every emotion.
8. Open your heart to new friendships. Learn from your travel companions.
There is no bond like a study abroad bond. Study abroad is filled with moments of self-doubt, uninhibited joy, growth, laughter, and sometimes even sadness. The people you share those moments with are your family for a brief time. Keep that spirit alive even when you’re back home. Nothing transports me back to Europe faster than sharing a cup of tea with one of my travel companions.
9. If you want to see something and no one else does, go alone. It may just be your favorite day of the trip.
My favorite (though it’s difficult to select just one) day of my UK trip was the day I traveled to Hampton Court Palace with my professor. I am a Tudor buff and I wanted to see that castle more than anything in London. When no one else in the group wanted to go, I briefly considered skipping out. Instead, I went, and it is to this day one of my top 3 best days of my life. Like I said, you never know when the chance to see these things will arise again. Take the chance. Just go.
10. Dabble in everything. The food, the music, the languages, the art. Leave no part of the culture untouched.
Try the new dish. Try to hold a conversation in an unfamiliar language, even if it’s a brief exchange. Dance to something different. Read a book about something you’ve never learned about before. Breathe in every new experience possible during these short, incredible weeks of your life.
Study abroad is a rare thing–a special thing. It comes with exhaustion, tricky weather, and the occasional spell of emotional turmoil, but you will grow, and learn, and feel things you’ve never felt before. These trips changed my life. They changed who I am. And you’re lucky. You’re all so lucky to be at a university with a commitment to study abroad. Apply for a trip. Apply for every scholarship available. Board a plane and leave your comfort zone at the door.
The world awaits.