Luke Armstrong | Feb 17, 2023
I have said my piece about why I think you’d be crazy not to take a gap year.
Truth be told, I feel the same way about studying abroad. It’s pretty epic that you can stay in another country for five months, learn about what you’re already interested in, and then earn college credit. My own semester abroad in Chile
will always be remembered as one of the most idyllic times of my life. It was instrumental in carving out my postgraduate life that would come—I’m not sure I’d be a travel writer writing this article if hadn’t studied abroad.
While there is no wrong way or place to study abroad, there are ways to get the most out of that experience.
As a double-majoring undergraduate student, I always maximized my course load. One semester I even petitioned the dean of my university to take more credits than the maximum allowable. But when I studied abroad, I did a 180. I took the minimum. I had
the cushiest schedule ever and only had class Tuesday – Thursday. Looking back, this allowed me to get the most out of my experience. And because my classes were in the second language I was learning, even the minimum 12 credit hours required
a lot more time than what I was used to back home.
So, consider giving yourself a course load that will allow you time to explore the new culture and country you find yourself in. Give yourself time for weekend trips, exploring museums, and all of the other fun things that your temporary home has to offer.
Most international study abroad programs make it easy for students to meet and befriend other international students. During my semester abroad, I ended up as part of a group of six lovely Americans. Ten years later, we are all still in touch.
Don’t allow the ease of making friends with your fellow study abroad students prevent you from meeting local students and locals not enrolled at your university though. Some of the richest cross-cultural learning you may have during your time abroad can come from unlikely places. Step out of your comfort zone and make some unexpected friends. Be it the man selling mangoes in the street, the elderly woman walking her dog in the park, a barista at the coffee shop, or the clerk at the bookstore, don’t be afraid to strike up conversations with locals.
Unless you are studying somewhere like England or Australia, odds are your time abroad involves learning a new language. And, the best way to learn a new language is to speak it. The best way to speak it is to speak it with native speakers who don’t
know English. That way you’re challenged to put your brain into hyperdrive and can’t fallback on your native tongue.
There’s no better way to gain a mastery of a new language than by striking up conversations, befriending locals, and not being afraid of making grammatical mistakes.
Yes, sometimes you will sound foolish, so don’t take yourself too seriously, smile at your silliness and don’t worry about the mistakes you make. A major block to learning a language is being self-conscious about speaking it. Try to have a sense of humor about the many inevitable mistakes you make. You’re learning, so no worries.
Here are some tips to help you learn that foreign language.
Travel teaches us that the way things are for us is not always the way things are for others. Every day make a commitment to keep an open mind about what you see and experience during your time abroad.
It can be easy to blow your budget early on in your trip. Eating out, bar tabs, taxi rides, and other incidentals add up. So, don’t spend blindly—that might lead you into a difficult financial situation midway through your time. Figure out early on what things cost, how much you have, and spend your financial resources wisely. This might mean waiting until the end of your trip to buy things like handicrafts and souvenirs.
In the galore of new friends, weekend trips, and new experiences, it can be easy to lose touch with your primary reason for studying abroad—to study! First, put in the work learning what you came to learn. Show up for class and do your assignments.
With good grades you can enjoy all the other offerings of the trip without the nagging guilt that you’re neglecting what’s most important.
No one hates studying a subway map or bus route more than me. Maybe that’s why I tend to get lost a lot . . .
Your navigation will go much more smoothly if you figure out the public transportation options and spend some time getting a handle on them. The alternative is to do what I do, be perpetually lost and constantly asking how get from A to B.
Never has there been such a perfect occasion to revive the lost art of letter and postcard writing then when you are studying abroad. So go ahead, keep the postal service alive and send your people snail mail! They’ll be thrilled to receive it.
Your semester abroad will likely be a memorable and transformative time in your life. Journaling is a great way to digest the new experiences and situations unfolding around you. You’ll be glad to have a record of those experiences. Even if you
have never journaled before, there is no better time to start than your semester abroad. For extra credit, you can even try doing it in the language you are learning.
Consider giving yourself time, a few weeks or maybe even a month, to stay in the country after the semester ends. You’ll likely have new friends, places to go, and a handle on the language. Why not enjoy that new cultural knowhow outside of the pressures of classes? Go ahead and give yourself a little time at the end of your trip to remain in the country. Just make sure to extend your travel insurance as well.
Luke Maguire Armstrong is the author of "The Nomad's Nomad." He has spent the last decade traveling, writing and designing, and funding philanthropic programs around the world.