Studying abroad, or anywhere that’s not one’s country of passport, sounds appealing and glamorous to many students. And I encourage study abroad whenever possible, for these experiences can truly broaden one’s perspective, create empathy, and foster even more curiosity about how much we all have to learn about each other.

I’ve written about some of the advantages of getting one’s degree in Europe or the UK here and here.

However, I do think that students also need to think about some of the challenges of study abroad and ask themselves if they might need to work on some of the attributes that contribute to a successful and enjoyable experience. Having lived in ten countries, and done study abroad myself, I have some insight into these characteristics that I’d like to share.

So here are my top 7 tips to help students have the experience that will truly be life-changing.

1. Are you able to live with some uncertainty?

That can range from not knowing where you are going to not knowing when the strike will end or the power restored or the train that’s running late will actually arrive.

2. Can you show genuine interest in people who are different from you to hear their stories, perspectives, and approach to life?

When Instagram fantasies come to life, we learn that there are real people living in these places. What are their hopes and dreams, struggles and worries? Perhaps start with small talk among those you encounter in your daily life and build up to more significant encounters and relationships. But the magic truly is in the relationships you will form!

3. Are you willing to learn at least enough of a foreign language to navigate your surroundings? Acquiring fluency or near fluency is a bonus!

When you learn a language, you gain insight into how people think and feel. It shows that you want to adapt to their country and culture, even given your own limitations. And when you show that interest, many people will respond differently than if you just expect them to speak your language. Just do an experiment one day – approach people in your language only and then approach people with at least some words in their language and observe the difference in how people react to you. (There is a caveat to this – if you are in a place where those you encounter are fluent in your language and you have just a few words, you might want to practice a bit first before putting yourself out there!)

4. Be respectful of others, even when you don’t understand the reasoning behind the way people do things. You don’t always have to agree with someone, but at least understand that showing respect will go a long way.

I’ve lived in places where the culture is outwardly very different from my own. But by listening and trying to hear more about where others are coming from, it really does help to open those doors. You don’t have to agree with everything they think, feel, or believe, either – just be respectful of your differences and soon the walls will start to come down.

5. Are you able to stay humble, make mistakes, get lost, and feel like a beginner during many daily life situations?

For those who are used to being in control or masters of your own universe, being in a place where you don’t understand how things are done can be unnerving. Recently I tried to navigate the Parisian metro and train system in order to visit a school in the suburbs. I had a tight schedule and people were waiting on me. Not understanding how to get the train ticket or transfer or figure out my way back was unnerving; I had to stop and remind myself that this was all part of the experience of being in a foreign country. So I summoned the courage to stop strangers to ask for help. I spoke flawed French to communicate my needs, despite my anxiety about not being perfect. And guess what? So many people were just lovely and gracious in their willingness to help. It all started, though, with my ability to be humble and admit I was just a beginner in this situation.

6. Can you tolerate being uncomfortable now and then? Sometimes life away from home can be really uncomfortable.

About this. Yes. Sometimes there is no A/C or ice. Or the heat isn’t turned up enough. Or it’s cold, windy, raining and nasty outside – or hot as blazes. Or you get sick and have to figure out what medications you need in a local pharmacy. Or the bed is lumpy and the sheets are scratchy. Traveling away from home means accepting that not every minute or every day is going to be great. But that’s ok. You’ll soon forget the unpleasantness – or it will make a story that you will laugh about!

7. Remember that approaching people with genuine kindness and a smile will get you a lot further than being snarky, grumpy, or even hostile.

We’ve all heard stories about how some people resent foreigners or are rude to them. I have to say, in my experience, I have rarely encountered this. I genuinely believe that most people are kind and want to at least be polite, no matter what their culture. I also think that in part people react to what they perceive is coming from us. I try to approach people with a smile and respect; maybe that’s why I experience that in return.

In sum, I encourage students to take that trip. Study abroad. Be uncomfortable. Stay humble. Get lost. Find your way back. I think that like me, most students will look back on the grand sum of their experiences and agree that they were some of the best times of their lives.

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