Study Abroad: 5 Tips for First Timers

Elle Gough

Ready to explore but unsure where to begin? Here are our 5 tips for first time study abroad students.

1. Go old-school and learn to read maps

We’re lucky we live in the 21st century, where Google and Siri can navigate on our behalf. Yet when studying abroad, it is important that you go back to the rudimentary skill of reading maps. Sounds boring? Hear us out. Metros, buses and traffic patterns (UK, Ireland and New Zealand drive on the left mind you), all rely on maps. Knowing how to get from the airport to your accommodations without WiFi means using maps. Knowing how to get to your hostel or catch the tour bus rely on reading maps. It also goes without saying that being “that person” pulling out a giant paper map on the street automatically identifies you as a tourist and foreigner. This can become a safety risk, as you’re more likely to be a target for petty theft or unwanted solicitation. 

Before you leave, read up on the maps of your new local community. Understand the basic geographic layout of the city or town, pinpointing bus stops and metro locations that are close to your residence and university. Find out where the best grocery stores are on the map, and figure out if they are in walking distance to your most frequented locations. Find landmarks you’ll remember as the North, South, East and West areas of your city so that you always have a directional sense of which way you’re heading. The best tip for this is to find popular tourist landmarks, as there will always be signs posted for these spaces and places which again will assist you with navigation. 

Pro Tip

Still feel a bit nervous about learning maps? Pro tip: using the Google Maps app, download the map of your city “offline.” This will allow you to search around the map of your city even when you don’t have WiFi. People also won’t recognize that you are reading a map-they’ll just notice you are on your phone. Good thing that’s another norm in the 21st century. 

2. Walk with confidence

The good old saying, “fake it till you make it.” Even if you are lost, cannot understand the language, or got on the wrong metro, go forward confidently. Being able to walk confidently in a new city and country is one of the tricks to better adjusting to life abroad. 

When you walk confidently, walk tall. Lengthen your spine, look straight ahead and own it. Showing confidence will make others believe you are a local-like you belong right where you are. In some scenarios, they may even ask you for directions (trust us, it’s happened before). This will help you feel at ease in your surroundings, even if you are nervous. 

Part two of this tip is do walk confidently without your phone. Absolutely you can use your phone when needed (re: maps), but when you don’t-zip it away in your bag and walk around hands free. For people who grew up with phones glued to their hands, this is a very freeing thought. Plus, chances are you won’t have constant service to check instagram updates or respond to messages. Enjoy the new found freedom. You’re welcome. 

3. Pack less

While options are great, chances are you do not need that fourth sweater. Tempting as it may be to fill your suitcase(s) with items you love from home, you will want to leave room for your return trip (souvenirs, anyone?). Although we tend to think about worst case scenarios first, we are here to tell you that there is indeed detergent, washing machines and dryers abroad. What you pack can and will be washed so that you can rewear your outfits, especially when you are studying abroad for a longer period of time. Whether staying for two weeks or two months, the odds are you only need to pack the same amount of items. 

Another added benefit if you are studying abroad in a colder climate: sweaters can have multiple uses before they need to be cleaned. Wool is a very sustainable fiber, wicking moisture, staying wrinkle resistant and maintaining its shape. So that fourth sweater really does become a want rather than a need. 

4. Ditch the rose colored glasses

A lot of times when you see pictures of study abroad, the weather is perfect, people are smiling and the captions lead you to believe that life abroad is even better than Hilary Duff exuded in The Lizzie McGuire Movie

While there are times that this can be true, don’t be fooled by the rose colored glasses. Adjusting to life abroad can be difficult. Home sickness hits, culture shock comes in waves and any variation in language can leave you confused and unsure of how to respond. Studying abroad is going to be a highlight in your life no matter what you experience, as it is a once in a lifetime opportunity that many students do not have the chance to take. But do not be discouraged if you are not always “living your best life.” You will go through stages along this experience that leave you questioning why you are here and why there isn’t a Ben & Jerry’s nearby when you are having a bad day. 

What you will realise is that all of these emotions culminate at some point during your time abroad and make you realize that you are indeed living the dream. Just by being abroad and giving this experience a go, learning to use public transportation or becoming comfortable as an individual and solo traveler, you are learning new skills and transforming into a better version of yourself. 

5. Save your old phone

In-country sim cards are key if you are going to be studying abroad for more than 30 days. Contacting your homestay, internship, or study abroad coordinators will be a daily occurence, and while WiFi is abundant in 2019, you may not always have access. For safety and ease, we recommend bringing an old phone from home and simply buying a sim card once you are in-country. This saves you money so that you do not have to buy a second phone, or go through the inconvenience of removing your American sim from your current phone. 

When you get an in-country sim card, remember the importance of country codes, and take a note from WhatsApp. If you put a phone number and country code into your contacts incorrectly, you will not be able to find the contact on WhatsApp. Since WhatsApp is the preferred messaging tool abroad, it is safe to bet that everyone in-country should have a WhatsApp profile. This said, enter a phone number into your mobile and then check to make sure it is registering correctly in WhatsApp. For example, the Irish country code +353. If this is not inputted correctly, you will not be able to see that your contact exists in WhatsApp. 

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