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The Voice

The dos and don’ts of study abroad

Your college years are the easiest time of your life to study abroad. There’s no career or family tying you down and you have a plethora of programs and locations to choose from. Scholarships specifically tailored for study abroad endeavors are just as abundant. People will literally give you money to spend three months on foreign soil and make yourself a more culturally competent, well-rounded individual.

That said, it’s up to you to make the most of your experience, whether it’s three weeks of island-hopping in the Caribbean or an academic year crisscrossing central Europe. My own study abroad experiences have taken me to places like Belize, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Here are a few things to keep in mind once you exit the plane and set off on your own adventures.
Do try the food.

On our first weekend in Costa Rica, we headed downtown to a popular café and sampled no fewer than 25 local fruits (my personal favorite: the carambola, or starfruit). Did we love some of the fruits and recoil at the taste of others? Of course. But we tried every one, even the pejibaye with mayonnaise, and we had some new favorite fruits by the time the plates were empty. So don’t go hunting for the nearest Papa John’s or McDonald’s when you need a snack; study abroad should an adventure for your taste buds, too.

Do learn the money exchange rate.

Yes, you still have to do some math even when you’re studying abroad. Get used to going to the closest bank and trading in your Abe Lincolns and Andrew Jacksons for euros, pesos or pounds. Keep tabs on the exchange rate; chances are it will fluctuate while you’re there (the number of colones per dollar dropped a bit while I was in Costa Rica). Also, be sure to let your local bank know if you plan on taking your credit or debit cards with you. They’ll probably need to approve it for use in a foreign country.

Don’t carry wads of cash around.

A surefire way to make yourself look inept is to pull out a brick of bills and hope it’s enough as you hand it to the vendor. Learn the general prices of food, clothes and other essentials in your study abroad country and only carry what you expect you’ll need for the day. Otherwise, leave the cash stockpile securely in your room. Many programs will give you a small safe where you can stash your passport, credit cards and other valuables.
Don’t travel by yourself at night.

This might sound like a lecture from your parents, but if you do plan on heading out after dark, bring a friend. Better yet, bring several. Regardless of where you are in the world or what TripAdvisor says about your study abroad location, every city will have crime and no place is entirely safe. You’re much less of a potential target in a group. Besides, if you’re stumbling drunk on margheritas, you’re going to want someone to make sure you get back to the hostel.

Do be a traveler.

This is the golden rule of study abroad: you are a traveler, not a tourist. Travelers keep their eyes and ears open and their mouths closed until they have a feel for the local culture. Travelers don’t perceive the practices and traditions of their study abroad location as “weird,” just different. They don’t shy away from unfamiliar settings and situations because they’re afraid of embarrassing themselves. Now is the time to make small mistakes and learn from experience. Trust me, locals appreciate a willingness to learn the language and customs and will be happy to educate you.

Don’t be a tourist. Especially not “that” tourist.

Tourists differ from travelers in that tourists are there to take a bunch of photos, buy cheap souvenirs and leave without really growing as culturally competent people. That’s not inherently bad, especially if you only have a few hours or days to spend in another country, but keep in mind that when you study abroad, you’re there to see, learn and experience what you would never be able to at home.

Above all else, you do not want to be “that” tourist. This person overreacts to every little thing and feels the need to pull out their camera or selfie stick every twenty seconds. They somehow make it back to their hostel or host family’s house every night despite being stumbling drunk on margheritas. This tourist hardly bothers to learn the native language and thinks that shouting in English is going to make it easier for the locals to understand them.

This person embarrasses themselves and makes for a poor representative of their native country and culture. If nothing else, when you’re abroad, do not be this person.   


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Joshua Lloyd, Author

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