How To: Make the Most of Your Time Abroad

Here is some of my advice about making the most of it…

Make friends

I am the type of person who isn’t afraid to go out exploring on my own, which is what I basically did for the first three weeks in Barcelona. Being thrown into a new place with new people didn’t mix well with my innate introversion, which was definitely taking over. Despite the lack of company, I did not (and still do not) believe in sitting at home just because I didn’t have someone to explore with. So I was doing everything alone: going to markets, admiring the beautiful architecture by Gaudí, absorbing the sights and smells and sounds of the city, getting a feel for the locals, and taking a LOT of photos. Being a solo explorer was nice because I could go by my own schedule, but being constantly on my own without anyone to really talk to grew old very quickly. Here’s a quote from Up in the Air that explains it all: “Life’s better with company.” I soon became lonely and homesick, wondering why I left all the people who cared about me in California and traveled across the world to be by myself. I am not opposed to making new friends; it just doesn’t come easily. I felt like I couldn’t connect with a lot of the students in my program who formed cliques immediately. I didn’t go abroad to party every night, which is an unfortunate stereotype of exchange students anywhere, but there is some truth to it when you’re in a city like Barcelona, renowned for the nightlife. I wanted to find something beautiful, to practice my Spanish, to experience a different culture, and to learn about art and history. I know that making friends doesn’t come easily for everyone, but you have to keep trying. Here’s the secret to making friends in a new place: find out why YOU are there, and find people who share that reason. These will be the people who have similar interests and the ones you will click with best. Once I found people who were like-minded, I was set. I didn’t feel homesick anymore. Of course I missed my friends and family and wished they were there with me, but I stopped wishing I was back in California. I was able to enjoy where I was.

Our last dinner together in Barcelona, sipping on sangria while waiting for our tapas

Meet locals

Alright, I can’t guarantee that those pictured below were locals — we were watching a fútbol game in the bar L’Ovella Negra, after all — but the important thing is that we met locals who told us where the celebration would be after the game ended.

Celebration in Las Ramblas after FC Barcelona defeats Real Madrid

Talking with locals, even briefly, gives you the chance to peek in to another culture from an insider’s perspective, leading me to my next point…

Join an intercambio (exchange)

When my program offered it, I jumped at the opportunity to participate in an intercambio. These exchanges usually mean conversing in two languages: your own language (in my case, English) and practicing your partner’s language (Spanish). Participating in an intercambio is a great informal way to practice a foreign language while helping someone learn a language. It’s a way to develop a friendship with someone who can give you inside knowledge about the local culture. Although my partner Andrea wasn’t originally from Barcelona, she had lived there long enough to tell me about different events, her favorite restaurants, and quirky stores we could visit together. Having a friendship with a Spanish person provided different insight about the culture, such as values and traditions, that are not as easily identifiable on the surface.

One of the last coffee shops we discovered… it felt like Alice in Wonderland!

Who doesn’t like the thought of sipping on tea or coffee while practicing your foreign language skills? :-) I miss the coffee culture of Europe!

Stay away from the internet and technology

My homestay didn’t have internet. For someone whose life has revolved around the internet since age ten, I was CRUSHED. After confirming that our sixty-something host mom did not have any internet connection whatsoever, my roommate and I began the desperate search for a reliable internet source. She asked all of the nearby cafes if they had wi-fi; I looked into renting a USB internet modem; we even went in to some stores and tried to explain what we wanted in Spanglish. Our attempts were useless. There were only two cafes within walking distance of our home but with limited hours; our friends told us the USB internet wasn’t very good and was a waste of money; and we couldn’t get a cheap internet connection without some long contract. Eventually we discovered how to work around this imposed change in our lifestyle — using internet at school or the study abroad office, grabbing a café con leche and working in a cafe, visiting the nearby locutorio (a shop that provides internet/phone services), bumming off of any free wi-fi connection in the city for a quick Facebook check, and my own discovery that I used most: Barcelona citywide wi-fi which barely reached the kitchen table if I pushed my little netbook to the table’s edge.

Sure, it was annoying and inconvenient when I needed to book a hostel or crank out that term paper that I was supposedly working on all semester, but you know what? Looking back, I am so grateful that we didn’t have internet. I’ve talked with students who didn’t give the study abroad experience a chance. They decided in the beginning that they hated it and were going to continue to hate it, end of story. So they would stay on their computers watching YouTube videos or TV shows, or waiting to Skype with family and friends back home. They spent their time longing for all the things they missed, brooding in negativity, and hating everything that was different, instead of changing their perspective and making the best of the situation.

Will and Grace

Jack in Will and Grace. Accurate caption!

It’s easy to fall into this trap. I’m all for keeping in touch with people back home, but sitting at a computer and waiting around is most definitely NOT the way to spend your time abroad. There is a lot to see and do, and it will pass you by before you realize it.

Another word of advice: don’t be attached to your cell phone. Don’t live tweet your experience instead of living it. I do this all the time while in the US. I have an iPhone and it’s glued to my hand: I am constantly checking Facebook, my e-mail, text messages, Tumblr… I will even reply while half-asleep! Fortunately I didn’t do that while abroad because I wasn’t able to. My iPhone was useless without data services and with limited wi-fi, so mostly I used it to call home occasionally and keep my family updated. I had a rental phone for emergencies and the occasional text messaging. It was difficult to make the switch to this old clunky phone that didn’t even have a QWERTY keyboard, but it was all I needed. Send text, receive text, make phone call, receive phone call. Just like the good old days. It was a welcome break from needing to feel constantly connected. It forced me to focus only on myself, and not worry about others who were not there with me. I could focus on what I was doing in that place and at that moment. You don’t need to have a fancy cell phone with the equivalent of a 4G connection. You don’t need to read an e-mail the second you receive it; that can wait, because you don’t have any real responsibilities. You don’t need to check up on what your friends are doing without you; chances are, you’re the one having more fun anyway.

My rental phone while abroad

It’s okay to miss your friends, but they will still be there when you come home. Having the technological means to contact your friends and family is nice, but don’t let it foster the feelings of being homesick. Please don’t allow technology to be a crutch, an excuse to stay in your own world.

Spend as little time indoors as possible

Relating to the previous argument about being glued to technology, there is a lot to see and experience when you’re abroad. If you’re going to sleep in all day or sit at your computer, you can do that in your home country for a fraction of the cost. My host mom warned me not to spend too much time at home after I returned between classes to eat lunch and take my long siesta all week. So I made a point of leaving the house in the morning and not returning until dinner. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I didn’t have class until 3:30pm but I made sure to always be out by around 10 or 10:30am at the latest. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of lounging around before school, feeling like I wasn’t able to see the city if class would eventually interrupt. I would take my lunch with me, go to a market or a museum or somewhere new, wander, and then eat my lunch outside in a plaza and people-watch or take photos before going to class. I saw a lot more than others did. Make the effort to see everything you possibly can.

The living room of my homestay. While it was cozy and comfortable, I made a point of spending my time outside of the house.

Travel, but don’t forget to enjoy your own city

While some  ambitious students took the first weekend opportunity to travel, I stayed behind. Which actually worked out fine because the weather in Barcelona was much better than other places in the wintertime. (Snowing everywhere? No thank you, not for this Californian!) Sure, jet-setting to other European cities is a lot of fun, but… When you study abroad, you fall in love with your city. If you leave too often, you may regret it when it’s time to go home. You can always travel through Europe on a separate trip. How often do you have the chance to thoroughly enjoy a city and all that it has to offer? The chance to learn the ins and outs of a place and live like a local? Sometimes you will visit another city and wish you’d chosen to study there. You’ll feel envious of those who are studying there. Well, there’s always someone wishing the same about YOUR city, and feeling jealous that you get to live there! The grass is always greener on the other side. When I traveled on weekends, it was eye-opening and incredible, but the trips were always too brief and left me winded. I was grateful for slow weekends in Barcelona, when I could take in the city at an easy pace instead of worrying about being a tourist. It was nice to remember why I picked Barcelona. I loved walking around, feeling in love with life, thinking to myself, “I can’t believe I’m here.”

Magic fountain of Montjuic, Barcelona

When April arrived and less than a month remained, I felt panicked at the thought that the time left wasn’t enough. Time abroad is precious, but unfortunately it is never enough. Make the most of it.


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4 responses to “How To: Make the Most of Your Time Abroad

  1. Pingback: The Study Abroad Process: An Overview | i who wander·

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  4. I love this post! Thanks for sharing this great advice. I’m about to leave for a semester in Sevilla, so I’m going to try to keep this in mind!

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