Most typical students study abroad when they’re in their late-teens to early-20s. Me? I was 30. I’ve never been the “typical” type of person anyway, so why should my study abroad experience be anything different? From the moment I stepped off of the plane in Prague, to my first time navigating to my dorm in Kiel, to getting lost in Copenhagen, I discovered that not only was I having the time of my life, but I was doing it my way.
Still, I realized that I didn’t know everything. Prior to my study abroad adventure, I didn’t have a lot of friends who had studied abroad themselves. I had a ton of questions, but at the time, didn’t really have anyone close to me that I could ask. Since I know that there are probably tons of people in similar situations, here are the top 5 things I wish I knew before studying abroad!
#1 You will have to pay to use public restrooms in Eastern Europe.
I can’t even begin to tell you how strange of a concept this was for me the first time I discovered that I had to pay to use a public restroom. After 3 flights and landing in Prague, my first time out of the United States, I found a much-needed ATM and pulled out some cash. I had no idea that a chunk of the cash was going to be needed to relieve myself in the city later on in the day.
In my mind, wasn’t having to use a public restroom payment enough? They’re not always clean, but there I was, forking over a few coins to a random lady who happened to be sitting just outside the restrooms with a plate of money (first experience of this: Krakow, Poland). Or sometimes I found myself running through the train station, trying to make my connection, only to find that the entrance to the restroom was guarded by plastic arms. The only way to make those devilish arms move was to feed a few coins into their mouths…only realizing that I had a wad of bill. No coins.
Word to the wise: always have a few coins in your pocket/bag/purse, ready to go when you have to go.
#2 Age is just a number.
Like I mentioned above, I was 30 when I finally experienced what it was like to study abroad. Growing up, I didn’t really know anyone who studied abroad in college, so I was sucked into the widely-accepted theory that only people younger than 22 studied abroad. So when I finally committed to my program in Germany, I was a little worried about the whole experience. Was I going to be the only person in their 30s? Was I going to be the oldest? Would I have anything in common with my classmates?
If you’re older than 22 and considering on a study abroad program, don’t worry. Once you get to your location and settled in, age will be the last thing on anyone’s mind. In my case, you’ll be too busy worrying about navigating the local university, communicating to the bus driver that yes, your bus pass is valid, and figuring out how to get all of your class assignments done (on time) while exploring your new home.
We had a wide variety of students in our class, from wide-eyed teenagers eager to (legally) drink beer for the first time, to married folks who left spouses and kids behind. By nature of being together and in a foreign country, you will make friends easily and form a special kind of bond that is hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t had that experience. And while I wasn’t the oldest person in my program, I certainly was in the top 3. Bottom line – it didn’t matter. I made lifelong friends who I still keep in contact with today. You will too. Quit worrying about your age. Nobody cares.
#3 People will have opinions on what you should and shouldn’t do, and they’ll offer their opinion whether you asked for it or not. When I was debating on whether or not I should even apply to my study abroad program, people were coming out of the woodwork to give me their opinion.
I had a ballsy coworker tell me I was “too old” to study abroad. Really? You’re almost 40 and still live at home, don’t pay rent, can’t keep a job, and have no friends.
I had a few acquaintances question if I could really afford to “frolic” in Germany for that long. Since when were my finances your concern? Some of us choose adventures instead of $100 shoes.
I had family members call me crazy and give me that “I’m-seriously-judging-you-and-questioning-your-sanity” look and call me selfish. You’ve never been out of the US and have no idea what it’s like to travel solo and study abroad.
In each of these situations, I just smiled and thanked them for their opinion, however sincere it was. Most of the people had never studied abroad, never traveled outside of the US, and had different priorities than I did. There’s nothing wrong with having differing opinions: quite the contrary. But there’s also a time and a place to be considered, as well as the intent behind it. Were they really scared for my safety? Were they worried that I was going to get lost, fall in a sewer in Germany and become a hag?
But for all the negative opinions, I was offered some real gems that have stayed with me. I am blessed to have a very supportive mother who encouraged me to follow my dream of studying abroad, even though she didn’t like me being so far away.
The bottom line is this: everyone will have their own opinion of your actions and will probably tell you what it is. It’s up to you to pick and choose which pieces to listen to and internalize. Don’t let anyone else make your decisions for you. And stand by your decision.
#4 There’s nothing wrong with comfort.
When my friends and I were visiting Copenhagen, we’d had a long day and were getting hangry. Since our visit had been pretty last minute and was tightly scheduled between classes, we didn’t really have a lot of time to research Danish cuisine and seek out restaurants to try. We ended up at the Hard Rock Cafe in Copenhagen. We’d been in Germany for over a month and were craving some good-ol’ American burgers. We’d all been to a Hard Rock in the states, so it was a happy break full of nostalgia for us. Having a taste of home made us eager to get out and explore again.
We hear about travelers, both solo and groups, who frown upon anything that reminds them of home, the US, or anything that isn’t “authentic.” Good for them. No, really! They choose to travel a certain way and so did I. There’s no bible for “appropriate travel practices” or a guidebook on the “one true way to travel the world.” Sure, maybe next time I’m in Europe, I won’t visit a restaurant chain that’s based in the US. Or maybe I’ll only eat at McDonald’s. Some travelers like to stay in resorts, all-inclusives, or high-end hotels. Others prefer hostels, Couchsurfing, and AirBnBs. Don’t make your decision based on anything other that your preference and comfort level.
So when I found myself alone in Munich a few weeks after Copenhagen…I stumbled upon the Hard Rock Cafe and just HAD to duck inside for dinner and recharge. It’s amazing what a little piece of comfort and familiarity can do.
#5 You will have experiences with your classmates that will change you. I hate to sound all generic and cliche, but there it is. For example: I am not a huge soccer fan, by any stretch of the imagination. I get bored watching it, I still don’t understand why “offsides” is called sometimes but not necessarily when I think it should be called, and for the life of me can’t comprehend all of the various leagues and why teams have the same name (I’m looking at YOU Real!)
When I was in Germany, the World Cup was headed towards the finals and Germany was about to win it all. Every game, I found myself in the mensa with the rest of the student body and my Utah classmates. We cheered, we watched, we painted our faces. We got caught in the rain en route to the games. When Germany won, we spilled onto the streets of Kiel and partied into the wee hours of the morning, only to barely catch the last bus to our dorms for a quick shower and grab our bags for class.
I still don’t like soccer, but I’ll watch the World Cup and will forever cheer for Deutschland!
So there you have it. I was not the same person coming home as I was when I left. My priorities changed and the one piece of advice I gave my brothers as they discussed their college plans was: go study abroad!
Have you studied abroad? What was your experience? Where did you go?