How to Get the Most Out of Your Study Abroad Experience

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by Bennett Shaw | Emory Iberian Studies Program, Summer 2016

Originally written on June 20, 2016

Summer Study Abroad programs are short. Sometimes they feel too short. How can you learn as much as possible and explore as much as possible in six short weeks? The secret?

Keep an open mind.

Speaking from experience, this is a lot easier said than done. There are a lot of challenges to keeping an open mind when going abroad.

  1. Expectations

    Each of us has expectations of how things will be when going abroad. Whether these expectations stem from things we have heard from friends who have been to that country, or from our own ideas, they can get in the way. Expectations lead one to seek a certain experience while keeping an open mind allows one to enjoy and learn from whatever happens.

  2. Personal Tastes

    Going abroad is not only about experiencing new things, but also about seeing old things in a different light. For example, this week I tried caracoles. Caracoles, the Spanish word for snails, is a typical dish here in Sevilla, which you would never see in the United States. It took quite a bit of effort for me to overcome my aversion to eating what most Americans consider a garden pest, and try the dish. Once I did, I was pleasantly surprised.

  3. Habits

    As Americans, we are very used to living life at whatever pace we want. We have restaurants open twenty-four hours a day, and we can basically do whatever we want at any point during the day. In Spain, this isn’t the case. Lunch is eaten between two and four in the afternoon, and most restaurants don’t open for dinner until 8:30. It is also pretty common for people to stay out at night until 3 AM or later, and nap from four until six in the afternoon the next day.

  4. Language Barrier 

    People love to blame the language barrier to any problem in a foreign country. The truth is that the language barrier is the easiest barrier of all to overcome. The true barrier is the cultural barrier. For example, here in Spain, you don’t get the bill at a restaurant unless you explicitly ask for it, instead of hinting that you are finished as is the custom in the United States. My first dinner here I waited forever for the bill, thinking I had successfully hinted to the waiter I was finished. In general, you have to view differences in culture as just differences instead of as a barrier to cultural connection. If you can achieve that viewpoint, you are well on your way to having a successful experience.

Keeping an open mind while abroad is no small task, but it is extremely worth it. If you are truly able to keep an open mind and are willing to try and experience new things, you may just find something you really enjoy. And be careful, you might just learn way more than you asked for.