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Everything You Need to Know About Studying Abroad

Considering a semester overseas? Jamia’s got you covered.

Illustration by Marjainez.

Illustration by Marjainez.

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.

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27 Comments

  • Viaperson February 6th, 2014 12:48 AM

    HAHA. amazing. this is the fear i always have about studying abroad, and the decision is looming. you take yourself (and, lol, your academic baggage) wherever you go, huh?

  • Viaperson February 6th, 2014 1:29 AM

    oopsies – when i commented earlier only the illustration had loaded, so that’s what i was responding to before! but, now that i’ve actually read the piece, THANK YOU so much, jamia. this is so helpful and considered. a nice antidote to the typical “study abroad NO MATTER WHAT, just jump right in!!” articles floatin around the net

    ps. i’m studying italian, too, and might try to do a summer semester in venice :)

    • Anaheed February 6th, 2014 3:20 AM

      Sorry for the delay in posting this one, you guys. My internet was in and out all day, and I hit Publish on this article at 9:30 PM and promptly took a nap. Then I slept through my alarm and woke up at midnight, only to find my computer screen displaying the message “Connection lost. Trying again…” which apparently had been up there for TWO AND A HALF HOURS. Many apologies for my eff-up!

    • giov February 7th, 2014 1:49 PM

      I’m from Venice, I can’t recommend growing up there, but it’s pretty dream for a summer semester :)

  • jenaimarley February 6th, 2014 1:39 AM

    Thank you for your true and wise words!
    I’m currently taking a gap year before uni to study abroad in China on the (completely funded!) U.S. State Department NSLI-Y scholarship and really identify with a lot of what you said. The last part about remembering why you are there is particularly relevant, I think. The saying that the farther you are from home, the bigger home gets has been really true for me: living my real life here has let me see the world in so many new ways as well as given me the opportunity to deeply examine my self both in the contexts of this new culture and my own (which have actually started to blend together in many ways).
    Anyway, I am absolutely adoring my experience here and really encourage studying abroad to anyone who’s even slightly interested! There are so many opportunities and scholarships for both high school and college students! :)
    And thanks again for this piece, Jamia!

    • queenb February 6th, 2014 8:52 AM

      THIS IS GREAT
      I’m also on a gap year with NSLI-Y, except I’m in Oman (above Yemen, next to Saudi is what I tell people to freak them out). I think many people forget that life abroad can be just as mundane as life back home. In fact, especially during the low period of culture shock problems are magnified and daily activities made more difficult through language and cultural barriers. I wouldn’t trade it for the world though, I highly suggest anyone in high school or looking for a gap year to apply for NSLI-Y or YES. I’ve had so many wonderful experiences that I would have never been able to do without the help of a scholarship!

      • jenaimarley February 7th, 2014 2:57 AM

        Yes! There’s NSLI-Y, YES, CBYX and so many more!

        Anway, yay! So happy to see that there is another NSLI-Y Rookie out there!
        It’s actually kind of funny / depressing though because since I don’t have a VPN, a lot of Rookie’s videos/links are blocked for me here (YouTube, New York Times, Facebook, etc); regardless though, Rookie’s been such a wonderful thing for me while abroad!

        But Oman! That’s so rad!!! :D
        Has it been totally amazing?!
        And are you going back to the States / to university next year?

        • queenb February 7th, 2014 10:52 AM

          Ah I hadn’t even thought about websites like NYT being blocked! That must be tough! The only things blocked here are skype/facetime and other video chatting due to the company owning the wifi.
          Anyways, I loooove Oman. It’s amazing. Next year I’m actually going to university in Scotland, where are you off to? I’d love to talk to you about your experience in China, is there a way to exchange emails on this thing without the whole world seeing?

        • jenaimarley February 12th, 2014 10:02 AM

          They can’t publish our email addresses on the site, but do you have a tumblr or such that you can share? Or you could email Anaheed at anaheed@rookiemag.com and she’ll so kindly give you my email address :)

  • Mayne February 6th, 2014 2:12 AM

    Thanks Jamia! I’m awaiting confirmation from the units involved for a semester in the UK right now so this was super helpful.

  • February 6th, 2014 4:58 AM

    And if someone of you will come to Florence, you should know there’s an italian Rookie who can’t wait to help you through the city (i study photography and history of art) and chitchat with you about everything (mainly Wes Anderson, Twin Peaks, Art and little vintage things)<3

    xxx

    Bea

    beproject.tumblr.com

    • Viaperson February 6th, 2014 12:19 PM

      Bea, if I do a semester in Italy this summer I’m going to get in touch!!! that sounds LOVELY :)

  • Raissomat February 6th, 2014 5:07 AM

    This is so beautiful and makes me so sad. I have always wanted to go to Danemark, and learn danish, but the truth is I have two diplomas and speak 5 languages already, and have no clue what to do with it. I am overqualified but still under experienced for the retail jobs, and way underqualified for the seriously creative jobs.
    And I have a boyfriend that is starting his business and a cat I adore and I cannot live without them for a year..and still I want to go go Danemark so bad..now I’m sad.

  • NotReallyChristian February 6th, 2014 6:10 AM

    I spent three months living in Florence during my gap year and it was the BEST THING EVER. All this advice is brilliant. I would add, make sure you take a decent amount of cash (in the right currency, obv.) to get you started and always have a stock of cash on hand – banks and bank machines can be tricky business in foreign countries and relying on card isn’t a great idea (although obviously make sure you’re keeping your cash stock somewhere safe). My card was defrauded at home right before I left, and the next thing I knew I was being called up by my bank on like my second day in Italy to be told someone had stole my money and my card would be cut off – luckily, because I had a couple of hundred euros in cash, I was able to hang on till my parents sent my new card on from home!
    If you’re staying for any length of time, make sure you understand how your communication is going to work – phone, internet and post. If you can have your mail sent somewhere secure (like your institution) rather than your house do that; where I was in Italy the post for the whole building was just jammed under the door and for anything that wouldn’t fit you had to go to a post office across town (and Italian post offices are kind of insane).

  • peppermintmoo February 6th, 2014 7:04 AM

    Great tips! I’m on a year-long exchange in South Korea at the moment and whenever I try to describe my feelings about my host families and my friends and everything I’ve learned, I can’t. The song More Than Words by Extreme pops into my head every time.

  • Jniz February 6th, 2014 9:45 AM

    I loved my abroad experience! I studied at an amazing art school in Florence, Itay called SACI. It was a great fit for me as an art student. I think finding a program geared towards your major and not just country/city of interest is super important.

  • peace.love.music.grows February 6th, 2014 11:07 AM

    This is an awesome post! Will share with all my friends who are gearing up for such an adventure.

  • thebrownette February 6th, 2014 11:24 AM

    I’ve never studied abroad, but I’ve read of situations where students have gotten pregnant and not been able to obtain their chosen reproductive health services. Be aware of laws regarding women’s health, etc., that will affect you when studying in another country.

  • Jamia February 6th, 2014 12:28 PM

    So excited to hear about all of your study abroad stories. I’m hoping to do it again at some point through a Fulbright program or something like it. If I could travel, hang out with feminists, and write full-time I’d be living my dream.

  • umi February 6th, 2014 9:25 PM

    ooh,this is so helpful!! i would love to study in Poland. I’ve never been there and maybe being a student there would help me feel more Polish??? My ((((((horrible and very basic, i’m such a bad daughter GOSH)))))) Polish skills need a bit of work. I’ll keep this close for future reference~!

  • Maryse89 February 6th, 2014 9:27 PM

    i loved studying abroad so much that i’m now doing my capstone graduate school project on international student exchanges and their potential as cultural diplomacy :)

    one of the most important things I’ve learned is that people who experience living and studying abroad immediately have more empathy for foreign students studying in their own country…it can be really hard and lonely sometimes to be a foreign student, so everyone in university currently should do everything they can to try to be friends with the international students and make them feel welcome!

    this sounds cheesy, but i believe that the littlest connection made can be crucial for building world peace in the future :)

  • Janis February 7th, 2014 5:31 AM

    So lucky! My mum and dad grew up in Indonesia & US and it makes me jealous everytime i hear stories about it!! Come visit indonesia!!!!!!!!!!!

    X
    Janis//Indonesian rookie

    janisargeswara.blogspot.com

  • giov February 7th, 2014 1:53 PM

    I studied abroad in high school (texas, 2006), and then I went to uni abroad (scotland, 2009-now). I also went on exchange from scotland to australia last year. I call myself a serial exchange student. It’s a state of mind with its own positive and negative sides, but I think everyone should have the chance to do it!

  • suzybishop February 8th, 2014 12:43 PM

    This was actually really helpful for me , because I’m going to study in Vancouver this winter ( I’m from germany ) and I’m so afraid of not finding friends etc.
    Thanks Rookie !!

    wastedgrrrl.tumblr.com

  • lizabeth February 9th, 2014 8:52 PM

    I studied in France for a semester in college and it was the most magical time of my life. To anyone who’s considering studying abroad, DO IT!!!

    These are all really great tips. Definitely take it all in and try to do and see as much as you can. Also know that as much as you plan things out, nothing will ever go completely smoothly–you just gotta go with it ;)

  • feminazi February 24th, 2014 6:50 AM

    I studied abroad in Denmark in 2011 and it was such a wonderful experience. It was really scary at 16 but Denmark was so cozy that I never ever felt unsafe even in Copenhagen alone (I was 16). Nyhavn is so beautiful. The Danish architecture is beautiful. I met so many wonderful people that I love and miss so much. I went through Rotary Youth Exchange and I would highly suggest it to anyone who is still in high school! They do a really good job of taking care of you and finding you a host family to live with. They also have like little events so you can meet other exchange students in the area where you are staying. That’s how I met most of my best friends (and I obviously fell in love with a boy along the way too)!

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