Grace Lower | Feb 21, 2018
That pesky thought first crossed my mind during my study abroad orientation. It popped up a few more times that afternoon, then lingered throughout my first few weeks in Granada, Spain. Annoying as it was, I couldn’t blame myself for wondering. I’d be spending a semester among Granada’s cobblestone streets and sun-bleached neighborhoods—everything around me had character and history. Meanwhile, I was responsible for completing five classes at the University of Granada’s Center for Modern Languages. I was a dedicated Spanish student back home, but in my excitement for my semester abroad, I hadn’t considered just how much my academics would shape my trip. Normally, I wouldn’t have batted an eye at a full course load, but here, I had cafe con leche to drink, discotecas to attend, and cuevas to explore. The time management stakes had never been higher.
Whether you’re traveling to Spain, Sweden, or Senegal, managing your coursework while studying abroad can feel like a necessary evil, at best. Your classes may not be as exciting as a long day of exploration, but they remain a valuable part of your study abroad trip—contextualizing your academic discipline within a new culture. Here are a few tricks that I picked up to stay on top of my studies without missing out on the joys of travel.
To keep procrastination at bay, dedicate part of each weekday to your schoolwork. You might decide to complete your assignments immediately after class, late at night, or first thing in the morning. No mater your timing, the goal is to chip away at your homework gradually, rather than rushing to get it done at the eleventh hour. When you budget your study time, you can avoid falling behind, while still having wiggle-room for last-minute plans or spontaneous outings.
There’s always strength in numbers. When it comes to preparing for an exam, a group of friends can keep morale high and help you stay motivated. Once I got to know a few of the students from my study abroad program, we devised a plan to study together for an hour each week. One of us would book a study room after class, then once we were finished with our homework, we would all go out for celebratory piononos. That’s the great thing about studying with new friends: you can always hang out after you’ve closed your books.
If you’re in a country where you’re still learning the native language, finding a local tutor can help you get ahead. A simple Google search can connect you with language tutors in your area, but many popular study abroad destinations will have advertisements for local tutors posted on community bulletin boards. You can also visit your host university or study abroad office to see if there are any tutoring services associated with your program.
No matter how you find your tutor, remember to exercise caution whenever you meet someone new. Bring a friend with you, or at the very least, be sure to meet your tutor in a local place, and let someone know where you’re going. You can never be too careful when you’re meeting strangers abroad, even if it’s just for a study session.
If you prefer to work on your assignments by yourself, shake up your routine by studying in public places. Try visiting a different cafe or library every week, and bring your homework with you. The steady bustle of patrons creates an excellent study soundtrack, and you’re likely to find amazing coffee and pastries no matter where you go. A quick word of advice: make sure your destination has Wi-Fi before designating it as your study spot—it’s not always guaranteed.
There’s a simple reason flashcards are such a beloved study tool for busy students: portability. Rather than bringing heavy books and thick stacks of notes on your travels, try making a set of flashcards for your backpack or carry-on. When you’re stuck in an insanely long layover, or if you’re riding the bus to meet up with a few friends, flashcards can quickly turn downtime into a makeshift study session—keeping you sharp while you’re on the go.
Smartphones and laptops are helpful study tools, when used thoughtfully. But there’s a growing body of research indicating that devices can hinder the learning process. Try to take some time to unplug while studying. Find a beautiful venue in your host city: a hilltop, a city square, or a quiet park. Leave the laptop at home, and throw your phone on airplane mode. From there, break out your textbook, your notes from class, and any other hard-copy study materials you have. This way, you can focus on mastering the content, with the scenery around you as your only distraction.
It’s tough to stay motivated when you travel, since there are so many exciting experiences demanding your attention. To avoid blowing off your coursework, create rewards for yourself to incentivize your productivity. Got a big test coming up? Schedule a few hours of study time, followed by a break for gelato. Feeling frustrated by a group project? Plan a night out for your group to celebrate a job well-done. By rewarding your hard work, you’ll be able to stay productive without forgoing the little joys of international travel.
As a student, you have a responsibility to prioritize your academics while you’re abroad. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun along the way. By incorporating a spirit of exploration, a smattering of tools and treats, and the support of new friends into your study time, you can ensure that schoolwork doesn’t get in the way of your curiosity—but instead, enhances it. After all, being a good student of the world starts with being a good student in the classroom.
Grace Lower is a recent college graduate with a love for writing and an incurable case of wanderlust. When she's not exploring new places, Grace enjoys teaching English as a Second Language, making terrible puns, and running incredibly long distances at incredibly slow speeds.