Jet-setting is in my DNA. My mom spent her late teens and early 20s wandering around Europe and Liberia, and I loved hearing her stories as a kid. I loved envisioning myself doing things my mom spoke about like eating chocolate and shopping in her mod miniskirts in Paris, zipping around in trains across Europe, visiting jazz festivals, backpacking and learning new languages. I spent most my childhood traveling around the Middle East, with side jaunts to Greece, Egypt, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, etc. Today I’ll never tire of getting lost and found in new neighborhoods, trying unfamiliar foods, learning how to say “I love you” in a variety of tongues, and testing my mettle by venturing outside my comfort zone.
I lived abroad for a summer in Italy during senior year of high school, and I loved it so much that I went back during my junior year of college. When I got there the first time, I was both excited and terrified. I spoke limited Italian and knew that my drama-prone ex-boyfriend was working at the school where I would be studying. We broke up eight months before my trip because he cheated on me and I decided to continue with my plans any way. I decided that I was going to go through with my trip anyway. I wasn’t going to let my anxiety about him get in the way of my dream. He tried to get back together with me in Italy and I almost caved, until I found out that he was still involved with the woman he was seeing before I arrived. I broke it off and focused on studying film, literature, and Italian culture, and ended up dating Leo, a former Prada model turned economist from Rome throughout the semester.
Living, learning, and (yes) loving abroad forced me into scary situations like asking for help from people who didn’t speak my first language, navigating a new city, and figuring out international banking, renting, and transportation logistics all by myself. I loved every minute of it, and my biggest regret is that I didn’t study in more places. I also wish I had more of an effort to volunteer for local organizations and get involved in civic life—I think I could have understood the culture on an even deeper level. I would also have spent less time focusing on my ex and more time meeting new people and building new relationships. And I would have established a local bank account for emergencies. My ATM card got sucked into a machine a few days in, and I had no access to any money for a few days.
To help prevent you from repeating my mistakes or making others, here are some things I learned while studying abroad.
1. Find the right fit.
Whether you’re interested in studying, volunteering, or working abroad, and no matter if you’re in high school, college, or grad school, there’s a program out there for you. From field-based programs to cultural exchange programs, there are tons of programs at lots of different price points. A lot of colleges have international-education departments—that’s how I found my study-abroad program. Some good ones: Study Abroad, the School for International Training, and the American Institute of Foreign Studies.
Next, think about what funding you have available through financial aid, your family, and/or scholarships. (The full cost, without financial aid, of a year abroad is around $17,700. A six-week term abroad generally costs $5,000–$6,000.) If you need time to save like I did, start applying for jobs and paid internships to help reach your goal. If you’re still coming up short, consider crowd-funding your trip or raising funds within your community like my friend Jen, who funded her artistic studies in Perugia via a letter writing campaign. If you’re going the crowdfunding route, be sure to be clear about what you’re going to do with what you learn, how you’re going to document your experience, and how you plan to keep people updated on your progress. Convey your passion in your pitch video.
2. Take care of business.
Be prepared. Before you go, make sure your student visa, passport, financial aid, banking, insurance, and housing paperwork are in order. Believe me, you want to deal with critical bureaucratic drudgery before you land in your new home so you can enjoy a worry-free experience there. Your semester or year abroad will fly by quickly, and you don’t want to waste a moment of fun.
Check in with the program you join to ensure that you’re aware of everything the school will ask you for: proof of medical insurance, proof of citizenship, copies of your passport, etc. And start doing some research: I read the local paper in English for months in anticipation of my trip to start collecting a list of events I wanted to visit and to get up to date on current events and customs. I also bought a map of the area and read reviews of the restaurants and shopping areas nearby so I could plan in advance. Most programs will give you information about where to go but it helped me to do my own research as well.