As August quietly draws to a close, another school year is upon us. Some students are setting off for university for the first time, others are returning to old friends and new classes, while others are apprehensively waiting to board a plane that will take them abroad for a semester or a year. And they’re probably wondering, “Why did this seem like a good idea?” Well, as a study abroad alum, let me tell you, it’s not a good idea. It’s the best idea. That said, there are definitely a few things I wish somebody had told me before I left. Or maybe they did and I just wasn’t listening.
The first day is probably going to suck. Don’t go home.
On my first day in Germany, I: got lost; couldn’t figure out the bus system; could not figure out the apartment building layout; couldn’t open the door to my apartment; could barely communicate with my roommate; and–just to top things off–I blew a fuse and knocked out the electricity for our entire apartment. Suffice it to say that at the end of the day, all I really wanted to do was to go home. Desperately. That was my worst day in Germany. It only got better from there. Stick it out.
You’re going to look like an idiot at least once. Just accept it.
You will say the wrong thing. You will find yourself in some of the most painfully awkward situations you have ever experienced. You might accidentally confuse words and tell someone they look like a camel when you meant to say they’re beautiful or maybe you’ll tell everyone at dinner that you’re pregnant when you meant to say you’re full. Whatever. It’s part of the experience. Just laugh it off and don’t let it get to you. I promise you that the worst experiences will make the best stories so just grin and bear it.
You do not need to get piss drunk every weekend.
Being in a country where you can legally drink doesn’t mean you need to go and get slammed every single weekend (or night). By all means, drink and enjoy yourself, be smart, have fun, but try not to spend most of your waking hours nursing a hangover.
Get a job.
Halfway through, I realized I was running low on funds and I had to find a job and quickly. I wish someone had just told me to do this from the beginning. Getting a part-time job in Germany did wonders for my language skills and my repertoire of hilarious stories. You’ll have to check on the specifics regarding your visa, but student visas often allow the bearer to pursue part-time work.
Whatever anyone hands you to try, try it. If you’re a vegetarian and someone hands you a piece of bread spread with animal fat and chicken feet, eat it. It will be disgusting and you’ll probably wish you hadn’t, but it’s better than regretting that you didn’t.
Say “yes” to hair-brained adventures.
An overnight train to a beer festival? A week-long camping trip in the Alps? Biking to a nearby town without a map? A weekend in Paris at the sketchiest hostel ever? An all-night relay race in the Netherlands? Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. This is your opportunity to get a taste for travel and adventure so don’t hold back! Yes, it’s important to pay attention to classes and grades, but don’t forget to be a student of life and get out there!
It’s okay to hang out with other exchange students.
Someone told me to avoid hanging out with other Americans and that I should only hang out with Germans. Now, while I understand and support the reasoning behind this, I’m going to tell you to just forget it and hang out with whoever you damn well please. Force yourself to speak the language you’re learning, go out of your way to meet locals, but hanging out with other exchange students gave me a much-needed community to flee to when I needed to have a good vent about the challenges of being abroad. Also, those fellow students were some of the most awesome people I’ve ever met.