Do’s and Don’ts for Studying Abroad

Do’s and Don’ts for Studying Abroad

Studying abroad can be a very rewarding and enlightening experience. You will likely learn a lot about the local customs, traditions, norms, and even language. In order to have the most enriching experience possible, and avoid potential study abroad and travel pitfalls, read through these 10 do’s and don’ts before studying abroad.

    1. Do learn about local traditions, customs, and laws BEFORE traveling. If there is a local holiday or festival, you won’t want to miss out on it just because you weren’t aware that it was taking place. It’s good to know local customs so that you’re not thrown off guard and offended or accidentally offend someone else. For example, in Costa Rica, it is customary to greet every person in the room when you enter (and often considered very rude if you do not!), and to give everyone one kiss on the cheek regardless of age, gender or even length of acquaintance. Also, make sure that you’re aware of local laws that might affect your trip, such as if there are certain clothing requirements for entering specific events or buildings, local traffic laws that differ from your own country, or even curfew regulations. Those are definitely not things that you want to accidentally learn the hard way!
    2. Don’t be a diva. There are going to be a lot of cultural norms and circumstances that are much different than what you are accustomed to at home. This does not make the host country “wrong”, but especially in less-developed countries, the possibilities that you are used to may either not exist or not be important to the locals. In Costa Rica, for example, urban areas will almost always offer clean water, electricity, internet, paved roads, cheap mass public transit, etc., but that may not always be the case in very rural areas. Also, being a tropical country, there will likely be many more bugs than you are used to, which does not in any way reflect on the cleanliness of your surroundings, but is just a fact of life for those living or traveling in a tropical region. You can always ask if a particular situation can be improved if it is uncomfortable for you, but just remember to show respect at all times, especially as the place that you are travelling in may not have the privilege to have access to things that you may take for granted in your home country.
    3. Do take necessary precautions. As friendly and helpful as the majority of people are towards travelers, there are always those that would seek to take advantage of a newcomer’s naiveté. My rule of thumb is to always travel as though I am in the heart of a huge city like Chicago in the dead of night. At nighttime in Chicago I would never travel alone by myself in expensive clothing, carry and show off expensive items such as cameras, phones, tablets, or laptops, go exploring the city after dark, walk down “sketchy” looking alleys or rundown areas, take money out of an ATM and count it and put it away on the street where people can see me, walk staring at a cell phone instead of at my surroundings, walk with headphones in my ears so I am unable to hear what is happening around me, etc. So I highly recommend that you never do those things in a foreign country, either, whether during the day or especially at night.
    4. Don’t be afraid to try new things. You are in a new country, with completely different customs, traditions, foods, travel experiences, and potentially languages. Get out there and experience EVERYTHING! In my adventures, I’ve eaten “crazy” things like alligator, snake, pig brains, cow tongue, alien-looking fruit, and things I’m still not sure what they were. As long as you’re reasonably certain of the sanitary environment, go for the gold and give it all a try! If nothing else, it will make for a great story! If you are invited to participate in different cultural experiences, such as local dances, don’t be afraid to give it a go even if you have no idea what you’re doing. No one else is going to care if you don’t do things perfectly, and they likely won’t even remember in a few days, weeks, or years, but you sure will! Also, if you’re lucky enough to be learning the country’s language, take every possible opportunity to practice. Mistakes are often your best teacher, as you’re almost guaranteed to never make those errors again if they’re big enough. Case in point, I accidentally and REPEATEDLY told a group of Costa Rican guys that I was dancing with that I was horny (estoy caliente!) instead of telling them that I was feeling hot (tengo calor!), like I thought that I was doing. After some uncomfortable moments for both them and for me, one of the guys with a high level of English explained to me what I was really saying. To say that I was MORTIFIED was an understatement. But, 10 years later, and you can be sure that I’ve never made that language mistake again!!!!
    5. Do be aware of culture shock and ways to reduce it or get through it. Culture shock is normal and almost a given the longer that you stay outside your home country. It is okay to miss certain aspects of your home life that you are deeply accustomed to and feel are the “norm”, even if they aren’t for that country. It’s not okay to let those differences bring you to a point of heavy stress and potentially ruin your trip. Try to be aware of potential differences that could be triggering for you before your trip, and to be as open-minded and flexible as possible. Remember cultural differences are not “wrong”, they are just “different” than what you are used to. If you are struggling, always try to ask for help from your host family, group coordinator, teachers, peers, friends and family BEFORE small issues compile and become big issues and potentially ruin an otherwise incredible experience.

6. Don’t be ungrateful. Remember that not everyone has the same economic possibilities or access to resources that you might. A meal that may look unappetizing to you may be a big treat for your host family, and may have cost them a lot of money or time to prepare in your honor. At least give it a try (you may be pleasantly surprised!), and if it really isn’t for you, respectfully and graciously thank them and inquire as to any other potential meal options. Depending on where you travel, especially if you travel to a hot or tropical country, hot showers may not be available, because the locals do not deem them necessary in the hot climate. Just having a running shower in the house may actually be a big privilege in some places. Even a seemingly small act of kindness, such as driving you somewhere or picking you up, may be an enormous effort on your host’s part, as they may need to change their work schedule to accommodate you or spend what little money they have on gas to get you where you need to be. In other words, treat every small kindness with the gratitude that it deserves, because you never know how big of an effort it may actually imply on the part of your hosts.

7. Do make new friends. Take every opportunity you can to converse with locals and to learn through them about the culture and norms of the area. If you are learning the country’s language, this is especially important, as talking with different people will expose you to new vocabulary, accents, and ideas.

8. Don’t give away personal information. Just because you are having great conversations and learning a ton about the culture, area, and language, does NOT mean that you should offer up identifying information about yourself. In my personal opinion, and especially if you never plan to see these people again, I feel that it is perfectly acceptable (and possibly necessary!) to omit identifying information completely, or if you feel put on the spot to answer when asked for identifying information, to offer a different name or information than what is real. The idea is to practice the language and to learn from what others share with you, not to put yourself in a potentially compromising position. You should never give out your full name, address of where you are staying in the host country or in your own country, where you are studying, what your study or travel schedule is, etc. The grand majority of people are friendly and just making conversation, but you don’t want to risk the chance of giving someone information that could lead to identity theft or put you in a potentially dangerous situation.

9. Do leave a positive impression on the people you meet. Although you are learning about the cultural norms and differences of your host country, the people you meet are also learning about YOUR country and formulating opinions about it based on the way that you act. If you are a slob and leave messes and litter, for example, they may extrapolate and believe that the majority of people from your country are disrespectful, sloppy and arrogant. On the flipside, if you are kind, grateful, and open and willing to try new things, they will likely have a very positive impression of both you and your home country, and are much more likely to interact with and even help other travelers because of how they perceive you and your countrymen.

10. Do take life by the horns. Unless you’re a multi-millionaire, chances are that you don’t study abroad every day of the year, or even once per year. In fact, study abroad may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for you. For that reason, take advantage of every moment that you can to experience the culture, practice the language if it is different from your own, try the local cuisine, and see all the sights. Leave your cell phone in your bag except for emergencies, your computer at home, and the TV off. There is plenty of time for those things when you’re back in your own country. Try all the new experiences that your host country has to offer and enjoy every moment to the full!

Blog post contributed by Mandy Picado VanderVeen, travel enthusiast, teacher, student, language learner, and Marketing Director at the best Spanish language school in Costa Rica, Instituto Estelar Bilingüe!