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How to Make the Most of Your Semester Abroad

It is that time of year once more. Students around the country are boarding flights this week and next to embark on an adventure of a lifetime — a semester abroad! Just yesterday my sister messaged me on behalf of a friend stressing about what to pack for three months in Spain (I have lots of packing tips here). So I thought I should share some advice on how to make the most of your semester abroad.

Pack Less, Budget More
The best advice I can give is to pack less and budget more. Students always bring way more than they need. Instead of spending a ton of money purchasing things you don’t need before you arrive, control the urge to spend and save that money for the trip. Trust me, you don’t need 50 pounds of clothing for three months! Pack your clothing items strategically (here is an example of my packing process and here are some tips for shedding weight in your suitcase) and save as much spending money as you can. There will be so many unexpected opportunities and hidden expenses you were not even aware existed. You don’t want to spend your time abroad stressing over the cost of unexpected taxi rides or an impromptu vespa tour in the Tuscan countryside.

Spend Money on Experiences, Not Things
Speaking of spending money, the money you are able to save and bring should be spent on unforgettable experiences and not on souvenirs or shopping sprees. Thanks to global commerce there is very little that you can’t buy state-side online. Plus, thanks to exchange rates, shopping in Europe/the UK is usually 15-20% more. Believe me, the most precious souvenir you can bring home (and that will never go out of style) are your memories and photos of you experiencing the world.

Because of this, I always advise students to spend their money on travel, travel, and more travel. Student tour companies make this super easy and budget friendly. Whether it is a day-trip to the Cinque Terre or a weekend trip to Eastern Europe, you can travel to Prague, Budapest, the French Rivera, Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Croatia, Greece, Rome, Venice, Milan, the Amalfi Coast, and Switzerland on the weekends. In Florence I recommend FlorenceForFun (if you’re based in Florence) because I work with them and my students have travelled with them for years, but their are tons of student travel agencies that cater to Americans studying abroad.

Be Willing to Explore Alone
As part of a study abroad class or cohort, you will spend a lot of time in class and traveling on excursions in groups (you can read my tips on coping with group travel here). Groups are great and sharing these experiences with friends is fun. But, group travel can often be taxing and requires a lot of personal sacrifice. Don’t skip an experience becuase no one wants to do it with you. Be willing to venture out on your own. Traveling alone can be a rewarding and worthwhile experience and I highly recommend it.

Make the Most of Your Free Time
A semester abroad is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Don’t waist time being lazy or distracted by love interests or group drama. There is only a 1% chance you will meet the love of your life, but there is a 100% chance you will regret not seeing or doing something. I am also always amazed at the students who prioritize sleeping all day over sightseeing, traveling, and experiencing a new culture. Listen, you are young and you can sleep when you are dead! On this same note, be careful of getting caught up into the drinking and club scene while abroad. Yes, going out is fun, but the club/bar scene looks basically the same everywhere throughout Europe and the U.S. What you can’t find in any major city is the Eiffel Tower, Colosseum, Grand Canal, etc., etc. Partying has its time and place. If that is your priority take your own trip, don’t do an academic semester abroad.

Take Your Studies Seriously
This one is more important than you might think. Studying the David and then actually going to see the David is a learning experience that cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world. The more effort you put into your classes will only enhance your extra curricular activities. I mean, the program I work with offers a chemistry of wine class! I audit this one and study very hard every year lol.

Don’t Focus on Home or What you Miss
Lots of students get home sick. This is perfectly normal. There are a lot of difficult realities that come with studying and living abroad that no one talks about (you can read more about these here). But, focusing on home and what you miss will only make you more homesick and cause you to miss out on important and fun experiences abroad. Try to keep yourself busy and focus on what you love about your new home. Time will fly!

Adopt a “When in Rome” Mentality
Finally, when all else fails adopt the tried and true “when in Rome” or “c’est la vie” mentality. Do as the locals do and don’t stress about things that are out of your control. Because, when it comes to travel, anything that can go wrong will (at some point). Prepare yourself for these difficult moments so you can overcome them with a positive outlook. Language barriers, flight delays, and strikes might be out of your control, but fortunately not letting them ruin your trip or good time is completely within your control.

Have you studied abroad? What tips would you give?