Making the Most of your Experience Abroad

Top 10 Ways to Make the Most Out of Your Study Abroad Experience

1 - Make Local Connections

Many students tell us when they return to Penn State that making friends with host nationals was not easy to do, but that it was the most rewarding aspect of their study abroad experience.  Please keep in mind that socialization patterns are different across cultures and the way one goes about developing and nurturing a friendship can be quite different from here at home. Consider volunteering while abroad or joining local clubs or student organizations to connect with local college students and community members.

2 - Write

Posting on blogs, personal web pages, and other social networking sites are a wonderful way to document your experiences abroad. Some students keep a personal journal while abroad and find they read it and re-read it in the months and years after they return.  Writing can lead to deeper reflection and understanding of international experiences and how they affect each student in a unique way.  Consider writing about your experience and submitting to our annual Penn State Education Abroad Writing Contest.

3 - Travel (But Not Every Weekend)

Go on, explore the area, see the sights, try new things! But, don't forget why you chose to study in the location you did. Get to know the people in your host community. How do they structure their lives?  What concerns are they facing?  What makes them happy?  Seek to interact with those you might normally not meet, such as the senior population, non-profit groups, or other local citizens that are not necessarily associated with your education program.  By better understanding your local community, you will gain a context in which to process what you learn in the classroom!

4 - Break Out of Your Comfort Zone

The "One hundred legged American" is a metaphor regularly applied to U.S. students abroad, since students sometimes move about in groups, seemingly of one body with multiple legs.  It is not easy to break away from the comfort of the group, but spending quality time with people other than American study abroad students allows you to form more meaningful relationships within the host culture and deepen your understanding of local traditions and the intercultural experience. 

5 - Live Like a Local Student

Shopping, eating and socializing with local students is surely the best way to control costs and as an added bonus you will get to see and do things that you might not have known about from a guide book

6 - Show Appreciation Across Cultures

Leaving gratuity in a restaurant, sending a thank you card or offering a kind word are all typical ways to express our appreciation here in the United States. Showing appreciation in a different culture might require a new approach. In some cultures, for example, gift giving is very important. How do people where you are studying show their appreciation? Using the language appropriately, observing societal norms and expectations, and following established protocols can demonstrate your appreciation.

7 - Involve Your Family (But Do Not Depend on Them)

By the time you arrive in your host country, you will have already jumped over many hurdles, including sorting through piles of pre-departure paperwork, maintaining good grades, and packing the essential items for success abroad.  Our advice to you is to view your family members as advisers, mentors, or consultants but refrain from using them as assistants, secretaries or trouble-shooters.  By empowering yourself to address the challenges and opportunities of daily life abroad, you gain skills in intercultural communication, problem solving, navigation, and much more.  Embrace these opportunities for growth!

8 - Culture Shock Adjustments

Adjusting to a new culture certainly has its emotional ups and downs. Working through daily challenges abroad means that you are moving away from being a tourist toward having more meaningful engagement with the culture. As difficult as it can be, this is a time for you to consider your own values, assumptions and beliefs and to explore how they are being challenged by your new experiences. Keep in mind that adjustment depends largely on the individual, degree of cultural difference (and perceptions of similarity) and other situational factors.

9 - Study the Culture

Traveling, learning the local language, and pursuing outside social interests are just some of the many ways you can enjoy your time abroad. But keep in mind that your academic courses are also a great way to pursue in-depth knowledge of your host culture. Become a specialist in some area of the culture! Don't be satisfied by writing a paper on the contemporary politics of the place where you're studying and not interview a local politician, for example. If you have the opportunity, don't miss out on studying alongside local students by enrolling directly in a local institution.

10 - Develop a New Perspective

Quite often the most important things you need to know about a culture, no one ever tells you. Through time, experience and keen observation, however, you'll begin to discover the cultural knowledge people are using to organize their behavior. What values, attitudes and assumptions inform that behavior? Try to discover the worldviews of those in the host culture by putting aside your own predetermined notions of the way the world is or should be. Challenge your definitions of discrimination and prejudice. What significance do these issues have for those in the host culture?