At GoAbroad, we're all about making the most of cultural experiences - this is especially true when it comes to studying abroad "off-the-beaten path." This guest post from Maria Rainier of OnlineDegrees.org offers some valuable advice to keep in mind if you've decided to study in a destination completely outside your comfort zone!
If you’ve had many friends or family members you know who’ve studied abroad, you likely hear very different accounts about their experiences. While most students will go on to say that they had a “life-changing experience” despite the challenges they may have encountered, the lived, day-to-day experience of studying in a different country can be exhilarating for some and absolutely devastating for others.
Most former study abroad students I’ve talked to had a much easier time thriving if they had chosen to study in countries like France, Germany, the U.K., Australia, or any countries classified as “first world.” On the other hand, those who chose to study in countries whose standard of living or culture was markedly different from America had mostly mixed experiences.
Personally, I chose to study in Russia, only because I had taken several years of Russian language in college and wanted to put my classroom knowledge to the test. As you can imagine, Russia is a very different country from the United States. The language is different, the culture is different, and, while it (like so many developing countries) is on its way to assimilating itself into a globalized, America-led, western pop culture, it still retains many of its own idiosyncrasies. Some of my peers were essentially depressed the entire time they were in Russia. I think the problem was that they did not anticipate how different Russia would be from America. If you decide to study in a country “off-the-beaten path,” be sure you don’t make the same mistake by following these tips:
Learn the language as best as you can before studying abroad
Even though you will likely be attending classes and hanging out with peers who speak English, it’s very important to have at least a basic grasp of the language, especially if you are going to a country that predominantly uses its native language. Don’t assume that citizens of all countries speak English. I was very surprised by how many Russian people I met who never took English classes in school. More than just helping you communicate and helping you go about your day, knowing the language opens many doors for you. It opens doors to different sets of friends, and it gives you access the culture like nothing else can.
Expect to experience challenges. Avoid thinking, “In America, this would never happen...”
One thing that is common to many developing countries is something that feels like inefficiency. You’ll likely encounter challenges that don’t really happen in America very often. Once, in Russia, an ATM machine ate my bank card. Getting it back was a nightmare. I was asked to go to many different banks days later, and no one seemed to know where my card was. After walking miles in the snow, I finally arrived at the correct bank that was holding my card, an hour before closing time. I was taken to a room and asked to wait. I waited about forty-five minutes, and a woman came out, saying that the bank did have my card, but that it was five minutes to closing time and I would have to come back tomorrow.
It’s easy to take an experience like this and conclude that your host country is backward. It’s easy to be faced with a challenge and subsequently be emotionally crushed by it. But realize from the get go that you will have these challenges, and they don’t necessarily only occur in your host country. Dwelling on the fact that America is so much more efficient will only lead to frustration. Confront your challenges and laugh about them later.
Don’t let a bad experience with a native person color your perception of the entire country
Just like facing a challenge with an institution like a bank, you’ll face challenges with people. These challenges will be different than challenges with friends, because there’s that large culture gap that separates you. Most bad experiences you have with people native to your host country will inevitably result from cultural misunderstanding. If it doesn’t have anything to do with culture, resist the impulse to attribute it to that culture. Many of my friends became victims of pickpockets in Saint Petersburg and Moscow. And many of them concluded that Russia was a country of thieves. What they didn’t realize is that any large metropolitan area with lots of tourism and pedestrian traffic will have this problem. It’s not a Russian thing. It’s simply a sad and frustrating reality in many urban areas with high levels of poverty.
Read novels and books on history and culture of your host country
Even if you are nearly fluent in the language spoken in your host country, remember that there’s more to language when it comes to learning the culture. Before departing, immerse yourself in novels, history books, and anything about your host country that you can get your hands on. It will give a deeper appreciation that can help guide your interactions in your new country.
Although I hate the cliché, studying abroad really does have the potential to be “life-changing.” If you approach the experience with a completely open mind, it will, at the very least, offer you a different perspective, one that you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life. Good luck!
A lifelong conversationalist and born writer, it was only a matter of time before Maria Rainier became a full-time blogger. Now she spends her time blogging about trending higher education issues such as the online degrees vs traditional degrees question and the values of distance learning. Please share some comments with her.