How to Maximize Cultural Immersion During Short Term Study Abroad Programs

by Megan Lee

You've only got a few weeks and you have to hit the ground running. You have limited time and want to maximize your experience. Unfortunately, some tourist sites do little to help you better understand the country you are studying abroad in.

Just because your study abroad program will be brief, doesn't mean you have to sacrifice the opportunity to walk away with a deep understanding of the local culture. Read on to learn how to maximize cultural immersion during your short term study abroad program.

1. Learn social niceties BEFORE you arrive.

Commit to memory how to say "Good morning," "Good afternoon," "Good evening," "Hello," "Thank You," "You're welcome" "I'm sorry," and "Excuse me." You could go even further if you're really into learning the language.

It's important to learn the proper greetings used in your study abroad destination. The locals will be more responsive to you, and genuinely appreciate the effort you make to interact with them, even in through these surface-level societal norms.

2. Break away from the group when you can.

Sometimes short term study abroad, such as summer term programs, can be more insular than more independent-style programs. You might be escorted from activity to activity with your group and your teachers, which doesn't allow much time for independent exploring.

Whenever you have the opportunity, seek a more solo-experience. Have lunch alone, walk behind the group at the museum. Get a taste of what it would be like to be in this country as a lone traveler. Locals tend to be intimidated by big groups of foreigners (who wouldn't be?!); this small act will maximize your chances of having a cool, impactful, and unexpected interaction with a man or woman (or cute little kid!) from the country you're studying abroad in.

3. Avoid private transport.

I know there are few things more appealing than a crowded bus or a stinky train, but there is intrinsic value in separating yourself from the comfort of private transport when you can. Observe the ways the locals travel from place to place and adopt it; bicycle taxi, anyone?

Another perk worth mentioning is that public transport usually costs significantly less than a taxi ride, so you can put the money you’d save toward something more exciting, like a cool souvenir or a special massage with exotic spices!

P.S. If you don't have the option to take public transport because of how your program is administered, take the time to get to know the local driving your bus instead!

4. Get walking!

There's no better way to turn a place from foreign to familiar than by traversing it on foot. Veer off the main road to the side alleys and streets for a more authentic look at how the locals go about their day-to-day lives.

See that mama hand washing her laundry, and those small children running with tires? Check out that group of teens taking selfies with their phones. Exposing yourself to the everyday lives of locals will give you a better grasp of their culture. And who knows, maybe they will invite you in for a cup of chai!

5. Visit a local museum.

And we don't mean skim through a museum going "ooh" and "aah" from artifact to artifact. Dig deep! Take the time to walk slowly. Read the facts that are presented. Interpret them, and take notes in a small journal about particularly interesting or fascinating cultural tidbits. Maximize your opportunities for cultural learning.

Especially for those students who are more visual learners, a good three-five hours spent at the national museum will give you a solid download of many aspects of the country. You'll also walk away with a better understanding of how your study abroad destination presents itself to the world.

6. Watch documentaries or read books related to the culture prior to arrival.

Put those Netflix marathons to good use by trading in your everyday comedic sitcom for documentaries pertaining to your study abroad destination. Ask your program advisors or resident directors for book recommendations.

Again, these steps will be most fruitful, in terms of maximizing your cultural immersion, if completed prior to your arrival. By starting your learning before you ever leave home, you'll enter the country with a base understanding and context of the culture you are participating in. Seeing a cultural nuance you learned about previously in action will be the cherry on top!

7. Put the camera away.

We are all for you documenting your experience and making all of your Facebook friends envious of your adventures. But, we challenge you to enter your short term study abroad program with a consciousness toward that camera of yours.

A camera automatically creates a divide between you and locals, as it quickly identifies you as a tourist. Psychologically, it might subconsciously fuel a sense of "visiting" versus participating in a new way of life. Look with your own eyes rather than always through the camera lens. Look at what's around you as a way of life rather than something constantly in need of being photographed.

8. Everything around you is interesting.

Yup, it sure is! If you allow yourself to soak up every last bit of your surroundings, even the stuff that might initially strike you as "weird," "inefficient," "frustrating," or "repulsive," you will set yourself up for the learning experience of a lifetime.

Follow your curiosity, ask questions, and never settle for a surface level explanation. The world is interesting, your study abroad destination is special, and with the right perspective, it will come alive as you do.

The downside is that you may need to do a bit more prep before your program than your long-term study abroad counterparts. The bright side is this is an invitation for you to actively prepare your heart and mind for the adventure ahead. It is possible to enjoy an enriching and culturally immersive experience, no matter if it's 10 days or two years. Now it is time to find the study abroad program that is right for you!