Ignore the photo, I just wasn’t sure which photo to include in this post and I thought this one was funny. Obviously, this post is about a couple pieces of advice I would like to give to any students planning on studying abroad.
The first thing I would like to tell you is that if you can study abroad for a full academic year instead of one semester, do it! I originally planned to study abroad for one semester and ended up going for two. If you make mistakes the first semester, you get a fresh start second semester to do things differently. There were several things first semester that I wish I had done differently, and I had a more fulfilling second semester because I changed those habits. The rest of my advice is based off these habits that I changed. Some of this advice may be a bit obvious, but I tried to include some more detailed points that hopefully refine the advice and make it more useful.
Don’t spend all your time with people from your own country. I think this is sometimes easier said than done; once you are in a foreign country and are out of your element, it can be so reassuring to talk to another American who understands how you feel and what you miss from home. Try to resist the temptation. I spent way too much time with other Americans my first semester in Korea. On one hand, I made some amazing American friends, but on the other hand, I found myself stuck in my comfort zone, surrounded by friends who were also native English speakers and had similar outlooks, behavior, and backgrounds to me. I expended more effort the next semester to make friends from other countries, and in particular to make Korean friends. As a result, I was able to have a more multicultural experience and I was able to practice Korean much more and I improved a great deal in comparison to first semester.
This brings me to my next point. If you are studying the language of the country in which you are studying, use it! First, try to use it as much as possible in your day-to-day life, such as ordering food or asking for directions. But if you really want to improve, you need to make friends with whom you can have extended conversations. My first semester, I was quite adept at ordering food or asking where the bathroom was but could not hold a sustained conversation in Korean. It was only during winter break and my second semester that I made a concerted effort to speak in Korean as much as possible with Korean friends, and that was when my Korean conversational skills improved remarkably. You can only gain so much from short exchanges with employees and strangers; friends will help you when you get stuck and correct you (if you ask them).
Get involved on campus as soon as you can. I know it can be a bit overwhelming at the beginning when you are trying to get settled, but this really does make a difference. In Korea in particular, it can sometimes be difficult to make Korean friends in class as they tend to be rather quiet and do not talk to classmates they don’t already know. As a result, joining a school club is a much easier way to make friends if you struggle to approach people in class. My first semester, I didn’t join a club until several months in, and while I still had fun, it was difficult to get very close with the other members who joined at the beginning, since they had already formed bonds with each other. I joined the club from the start of my second semester (I happened to be the only returning member for various reasons) and I became much closer with the other club members and made many close friends.
Travel as much as you can, and don’t procrastinate on your assignments. I place these two together because if you save all your work for the weekends, you won’t have time to travel. It’s tempting to just rest after you get done with class on a weekday, but if you have to spend all your weekends working, you lose the best time to travel. Don’t stay in the city you are studying in, even if it is a big one with lots of things to do. Get out and explore other parts of the country. I enjoyed some of the smaller cities in Korea just as much as the big and bustling city of Seoul. Try to travel outside of the country as much as you can as well. Especially if you don’t know if you will come back, you may never be able to get plane tickets to nearby countries as cheap as they will be in that moment. In addition, try to figure out your traveling style in order to enjoy your trips to the fullest extent. Do you prefer traveling alone, or with friends? (Of course, be careful if you are traveling alone somewhere with higher crime rates.) Do you prefer exploring one spot or city for a long time, or would you rather bounce around and get a little taste of each place and see as much as possible?
That being said, remember to take a break every once and awhile. When I am abroad, I worry about regretting not taking full advantage of my time and seeing everything that I possibly can. This isn’t the best mindset to have, especially if you are like me and can’t keep going and going endlessly. Give yourself some downtime, and don’t be regretful if you aren’t using every second of your time to do something exciting. If you don’t, you may end up overtired and not enjoying whatever you went out to do. You could even get yourself sick, and then you really end up stuck at home unable to go out. Focus on being well-rested physically and mentally so you can enjoy everything you do as much as possible.
I’ll stop here, but I hope my advice can be of use to some students going abroad. Above all, remember to have fun and not stress too much about if you are studying abroad “the right way” because there isn’t one. Just enjoy yourself, and don’t forget to study every once and awhile.