Studying abroad is what you make it. I could end my advice there; I’m sure that’s been said a thousand times, but it’s brief and better yet, it’s true. If you want your study abroad experience to be an extension of your college life, like just taking what you have in the states and stretching it across the planet, then that is exactly what it will be. If you want a radical change of pace, a full inundation of the unfamiliar, and a dramatic life change, that’s what it will be. Well, that’s what it could be.
The truth of the matter is, whatever experience you have while studying abroad is dictated by your actions. Of course, our feelings largely dictate our actions, but you will not get the radical European experience without choosing it and acting upon it, and you will not get the American version of Europe deciding so.
And you’re not going to get shit sitting in your room, but that’s your choice. Also, just because this prompt is about giving my advice doesn’t mean I have to take it.
I would suggest not choosing the version you want before you arrive. I planned trips throughout Europe nearly every weekend, as well as a fall break crammed with flights, tours, buses and trains. I wouldn’t recommend it.
The biggest, most pragmatic bit of knowledge I’ve acquired here is that you are never going to experience something through a tour, or a museum. If you like art, history, or art history, then sure, go see it all. If you’re a plebian like myself, once you’ve seen one Christ on the cross, you’ve seen all Christs on the cross.
With that being said, of course you should see things like the Duomo, and the Eiffel Tower. I aspire to do something creative with my life, and these monuments are both daunting and inspiring. There’s something amazing about things so giant, so ornate and so intricate. They’re reminders that larger than life projects are not larger than you. Truly, the Eiffel Tower seems like this planet’s beacon around which all life is based.
I assumed I would want to fervently travel throughout Europe on the weekends with my friends, but I grew tired of that. I love my friends, but it’s hard to discover the unfamiliar when you bring the familiar with you.
The moments that I will remember most will be mainly be the times I walked alone, allowing myself to look and listen, while quietly piecing together why I was around to walk in the first place.
I will also remember the sights that amazed me – the Eiffel tower at night, the pebble beaches of Nice, the sunset in Barcelona, the views from various planes over the Alps, the horizon from the highest castle in Lisbon, etc. Not to mention the quieter, more intimate nights with the people I’ve grown to care a lot about.
I would suggest learning the language prior. Certain colleges make students learn the respected language before studying abroad, which should be standard protocol. Learn the language before, and use it as much as possible.
If you find a way to meet locals, please let me know how you did so. I am only friendly with people who work at the establishments I frequent – this is depressing to me. Though, I hope to remember their smiles and Ciaos upon my walking in. I hope my face has been as friendly and familiar as theirs have been to me.
Also, I would recommend doing a homestay. Maybe I romanticize it because I never experienced it, but I imagine it is a beautiful immersion into whatever your study abroad site’s culture.
What else? Smile (if you can). If you’re a guy studying in Florence I suggest growing a mustache to talk to Italian girls. I have no basis for saying that, but still.
I’ll close with this: study abroad is just college somewhere else. You’re not going to have much time to dance under moonlight and whatnot (was that a good example?) most of the time, so stop imagining some fantastic journey for study-abroad. You can go see beautiful things, but this is still school – don’t let the word “Europe” send your expectations too high.