Getting to Know Your On-Site Staff While Studying Abroad

by Tara Maher

You chose your study abroad program, submitted all the important documents, finalized your visa, didn’t miss your flight (thankfully), and you are officially studying abroad. You’ve been meeting new students, adjusting to the foreign culture, and finding your niche. However, what happened to those friendly faces who met you at the airport or brought you to your second home?

CEA Study Abroad staff in Dublin, Ireland

Working at CEA allows me to get to know on-site teams in other locations as well. I  was able to meet the Dublin staff while traveling with my family!

Maybe you saw them upon arrival or during orientation, but the on-site study abroad staff are still around and excited to get to know you! Some of the staff might even be from your study abroad destination; take advantage of the exciting opportunity to develop a meaningful relationship with a local and make time to meet up with your on-site staff. Besides, what do you have to lose?

Your new support system has so much to share with you; all you have to do is ask.

If you still aren’t exactly sure why you should take time away from meeting new friends, exploring famous sites, and indulging in the local cuisine to meet up with your on-site staff, here are four reasons why you should get to know your on-site staff, sooner rather than later, during your study abroad program. 

1. They are experts on your city.

You may already know some secret spots or have received recommendations from a former study abroad student, but I guarantee the on-site members will know at least one place you wouldn’t be able to find without their expertise. They have insider knowledge about discovering hidden cafés, navigating the city, and befriending locals, and they are speaking from experience!

Want to take your visiting family or friends to an authentic restaurant? Ask an on-site staff member to recommend one of his or her favorite places to eat.

Cooking a traditional Czech meal in Prague

On-site team member, Marketa, and a Prague student cooking a traditional Czech meal during a CEA cooking class

If you are “direction challenged”, the on-site team will be able to recommend ways to navigate your study abroad city better, whether by foot, bike, or metro.

My on-site staff in Paris gave all the students a pocket map specific for each arrondissement and the metro system. Needless to say, it hardly ever left my side, especially during those first few weeks abroad.

The on-site team also has the inside scoop about local events or festivals, as well as how to participate.

One of my on-site staff members in Paris also emailed a newsletter every week containing weekend activities and cultural facts. Although it would have been easy to delete these emails without reading them, I always found one piece of it to be beneficial to immersing myself in the French culture. 

2. They are fluent in the local language.

If you are a beginner, don’t be afraid to voice your concerns or reach out to an on-site staff member. They have resources about tutoring services or language groups that are best for your level. They also know little bits of information that you can only acquire from living in the country long term, such as slang, idioms, and jokes. One of your on-site team members might even offer to give you an extra language lesson outside of class or tutor all beginners in your program.

CEA Study Abroad staff and students

Granada staff member, Daniel (middle), with students from the CEA student volleyball team

Grab this opportunity if you have it! It will give you much more one-on-one time to practice your conversation and listening skills.

If you are more advanced or just want more practice, use the on-site team as conversation partners. You don’t need to schedule a time to meet or even officially request their help, rather speak to them only in the second language every time you ask a question or for a recommendation. You’ll receive immediate feedback on how to improve, and your confidence will grow the more you practice.

I always tried to speak French even though all the on-site staff spoke English fluently. They were patient when I tripped over words, spoke a little slower so I could understand, and would occasionally let me speak English when I was stuck. They made me feel comfortable and less worried about being perfect, especially because they understood the challenges of learning a second language.

3. They understand your host country’s culture and know how to adjust.

The on-site staff have been living in your host country for quite some time, so they have valuable insight about culture shock, norms, and differences from the U.S. Similar to learning a second language, expatriate staff understand the complexities of assimilating to a culture and making local friends. However, if you want to become more involved in the community, ask the on-site team where to seek meetup groups related to your favorite hobbies.

CEA Study Abroad students and staff exploring Rome, Italy

Andrea (CEA Student Life Assistant, left) and Rome fall '15 students exploring the city on a pizza and gelato crawl

During orientation, one of the days was a 'club fair', and surprisingly enough, there was also one representative from a women’s soccer team. After speaking with her, I joined their international soccer team and played in multiple tournaments or games with them throughout my semester abroad. I wouldn’t have found such an opportunity without the on-site team’s event.

4. They can be a major source of advice and information in general.

Don’t forget about the on-site staff members who grew up in your host country when you have questions about your new environment or want someone to explain the meaning behind people’s actions.

During my first week of arriving in Paris, the on-site team discussed the customary greeting in France (bisous or kisses on the cheek), so we were prepared for these new interactions. It was very awkward the first couple times, but I became accustomed to it and actually preferred this greeting by the end of the semester.

If you are too shy to ask or just want to know more, you can always resort to researching something for yourself. If you are studying abroad in France, for example, you should read 60 Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong. It will provide you with a real perspective on how the French view politics, personal space, and language, among other topics, and truly help you adjust to some cultural norms that you don’t understand. (Warning: this will require you pick up a book and read!)

International students on a city tour in San Jose, Costa Rica

CEA San José on-site team (Leo and Maggie) giving a city tour to their students during orientation week

Your on-site team can be very valuable resources and connections that will truly enhance your study abroad experience, if you let them.

Start small by saying "hi" when you first arrive in the morning or asking for directions instead of Googling them. Take advantage of having an on-site support system during your study abroad program by learning more about their lives and sharing your experiences with them. You won’t regret it!

This article was contributed by CEA, a company that provides international education opportunities in Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Founded in 1997, CEA's programs promote academic and personal growth as well as global competence among all participants.