Go With an Open Mind
When I first started researching and interviewing people for articles on study abroad in Asia, I didn't realize to what extent each person's position would influence his or her opinion of what makes a good study abroad program. Language instructors stressed the importance of finding a program with quality language instructors and a low student-to-teacher ratio. Study abroad administrators talked about the importance of programs with a good logistical structure, good support resources, and financial incentives for students. And of course each student I interviewed had his or her own take on what made a program good.
They did agree on a few things, though, and the advice compiled here is testament to that. These themes, which came up again and again in interviews, represent the most basic advice on study abroad regardless of what country you intend to visit.
What really makes a good program depends on what you, as a study abroad student, are looking for. Is your main goal to improve your language skills, to do research, or simply to explore a new country? If your goal is something of the latter, do you even need to be part of a study abroad program? Is this your first time abroad or your tenth? Are you a group person or a loner? How's your tolerance for emotional and physical discomfort? How structured do you want your experience?
Clearly understanding your own motives (and, just as important, your own boundaries) will be the key to finding the best program for you.
Before You Go
1. Learn about the country. Regardless of where you're going and how long you plan to be there, it pays to learn as much as you can before you go. You never know when understanding some little nuance of cultural etiquette may come in handy. It may save you from making a major offense; at the very least it'll give you some insight into what's happening around you.
2. Learn the language. Most language instructors will insist that having intermediate language skills (i.e. about two years of college-level language studies) will make for a better study abroad experience. Although this isn't a hard-and-fast rule, having at least some communication skills in the native language will help you function in daily life, will facilitate interaction with a host family, and will generally make things easier. Most former student abroad students interviewed for the ThingsAsian study abroad articles had had some prior language training.
3. Research programs. Now that you know what you want, it's important to find a program that meets your individual needs. Some programs focus on language skills, some on volunteer work, others on travel, or cultural research and exchange.
You're on Your Way
4. Go with an open mind. You can prepare yourself for culture shock, but people who've "been there and done that" say the only real preparation is to go with an open mind. Poverty like you've never seen, the overwhelming stink and pollution of overcrowded urban areas, and the occasional cultural misunderstanding or two will all be inextricable parts of your study abroad experience. Keeping an open mind will help you to embrace the exotic, the smelly, and the frustrating alike.
5. Engage in extracurricular activities. Careful, though. Not every extracurricular activity will benefit your understanding of your host country or its culture. In one expatriate's words, "Combating with crowds of sweaty people to get a view of dragon boat races won't give anyone a deeper appreciation of Chinese culture." Some programs can arrange special projects, where you can interview locals, study with local artisans, or volunteer time in community organizations.
6. Do a homestay. Although homestays aren't always readily available, if the opportunity presents itself, take it. Students who did so cite their homestay as one of the most important experiences in their study abroad. Being paired with a local student for a roommate would be worthwhile if a homestay cannot be arranged.
7. Recognize and address signs of stress. Yeah, you're rough, you're tough, you're a travelin' fool. But you're human, too, so don't be too hard on yourself when signs of culture shock and stress arise. Those involved in study abroad suggest bringing music or books from home, or whatever else you might use to combat stress.
8. Reconnect with loved ones. Not everyone talks about it, but returnees from an overseas experience often experience a reverse culture shock. Your experience has changed you, but friends and family don't see you any differently. Give them and yourself some time to get to know one another again.
9. Evaluate your experience. Once you've had a chance to settle back into your life at home, take some time to reflect on your experience. If improving your language skills mattered most, find out if your American instructors feel your language proficiency has improved. Was the experience what you expected? What would you have done differently? What unexpected things did you learn about the country you visited? About yourself?
10. Stay in touch. Don't lose those friends you made while overseas. Keeping in touch with the people who mattered most will build an international relationship and help to challenge and broaden your worldview.
11. Cultivate new contacts. If you didn't do so before your trip, now's your chance to get in touch with associations, organizations, and clubs in your hometown that host and sponsor activities related to the country you visited. Oftentimes your college campus will have student associations where you can meet people from the country you visited, as well, to do a language exchange or just to cultivate friendship.
12. Plan your next trip. Whether you called that country your home for a month or a year, sooner or later you'll find yourself getting "homesick" for it. Weird, but it happens. So don't dwell on the past, go ahead and start planning your next trip!
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