Creating A Formative Abroad Experience

by Published

How to Make the Most of Study Abroad

Deep into the refrigerated section of a Publix Supermarket, I searched. Pacing around cold, perspiring dairy products, deli meats, and pre-made foods, I looked for one item: olives. Greek yoghurt was already in my cart, but I needed olives. Not canned olives drowning in salt-watery juice, but real, authentic, flavorful, fresh, and delectable Kalamata olives. Eventually, I was pointed to the deli section where I found my beautiful olives sitting between 16oz cups of fresh salsa and hummus. The cultural abstraction was so comical looking back, but all I could think about in the moment was eating those olives. They glistened entrancingly in their container and held so many stories. They quickly found their way into a Greek salad the moment I was home. 

Ancient ruins in Greece

My study abroad experience in Athens, Greece was transformative. By the end of my time there, tomatoes and olives, two foods that I abhorred, were my dietary staples. I became aware about the seasonality of foods, keen on sardines and coffee, and knowledgeable about how pesticides, GMOs, and non-organic food-sprays can compromise a food’s taste and flavor. But my eating habits were not the only things that were altered because of study abroad in Greece; my passions, vocational direction, indifference toward ancient history, and lack of cultural understanding also changed. I left Greece knowing so much more about myself than I had ever expected.

Many told me that studying abroad would be an incredibly formative experience, but I never believed them. Now I do. I’m not asking you to just believe me. And I’m not demanding that you study abroad to Greece. But, in my experience, studying abroad in Greece transformed me, so I highly recommend it!

My Best Study Abroad Tips

These are the best study abroad tips I have to help you make the most of study abroad, and I strongly believe these tips can help maximize the formative nature of your abroad experience. Try them out. Add to them or take some away. Make them your own. Each person has to make the most of study abroad in their very own way.

Sailboat in Greece

1. Be spontaneous.

Flexibility, boldness, courage, willingness to explore, eagerness to learn, desire to change, and an intention to listen is vital to fostering a formative study abroad experience. Effectively, going abroad consists of two main decisions: where to go and how to spend your time there.

If you are having trouble deciding where to study abroad here is a piece of advice: be spontaneous. Go somewhere you might not otherwise visit, find some place that makes you uneasy, and live somewhere that intrigues you. Be spontaneous by allowing your comfort to be interrupted. Do something new. Experience something great.

Once you decide where to study abroad, please don’t let your fixed academic schedule and lengthy bucket list stop you from making spontaneous decisions. Allow yourself some time to aimlessly explore. Buy the cheapest plane ticket off of RyanAir, wherever it leads you. Talk to people you pass by on the street. Get lost. Ride the metro. Grab a meal with a beggar. Run a marathon. Climb a mountain (ideally Mount Olympus). Get an internship. Get another internship. Talk to a street artist. Go to a museum. Serve someone. Live in someone else’s shoes. Be flexible.

Don’t spend your time planning and scheduling so much that you miss out on the precious moments around you. Seize your days abroad and be a good steward of the time you have. And, if you can, go sailing on the Aegean Sea. It’s incredible.

[Experience The Fullest Life Through Summer Study in Greece]

2. Allow immersion to work its course.

Greek is tough. While abroad, I studied Ancient Greek because I wanted to one day read ancient poetic and sacred texts. This decision effectively shot my chances at communicating with people in Modern Greek, but I made an effort to say what little Greek did know in every conversation I had with a native speaker. Gradually, my arsenal of Greek words and phrases grew and by the end of my time in Greece, I was ordering pastries and coffees out the wazoo. You’re probably thinking, ‘big whoop, the guy got himself a pastry,’ but that was huge at the time. I set myself up for failure in daily conversation by studying a dead language, but I realized that going abroad brings a powerful and understated tool: immersion.

While abroad, immerse yourself in the culture around you. Learn a language by hearing it. Appreciate a culture by observation. Understand a people by listening to their stories. One of the richest ways I found to immerse myself in Greek culture was by visiting cemeteries, sitting in on a Greek Orthodox service, going to the weekly street market in my town (Pangrati), walking everywhere, observing both modern and ancient architecture, spending downtime outside, working out in a park, playing pick-up basketball with Greeks, traveling within Greece, and listening to real Greeks tell real stories. Don’t settle for Google, YouTube, or even articles like this one to tell you everything about a certain place. Ask a Greek about Greece and learn some history along the way.

Ultimately, you will find your abroad experience more formative if you leave some of your anxious questions unanswered.

3. Write about it.

Most every classics major, archaeologist, geographer, ancient historian, early Christian scholar, and late antiquity fanatic knows Pausanias. Potentially one of the most influential travelers in history, Pausanias became so vital to people’s current academic pursuits and increasing understanding of ancient culture and topography because of his dedication to documentation. As a Greek, he wrote about everything around him, including object dimensions, agonizingly minor details, obscure rituals, small gatherings, and large-scale events. He was honest and painstakingly candid in his documentation, and he made the most of his travels.

Wherever you go, do what you can in the moment to remember that moment for sometime in the future.

To this day, the most meaningful object I have from Greece is my journal. All the olive oil, vacuum-safe olives, and smuggled baklava only last for so long. I urge you to write your way through your study abroad experience. Take time to reflect. Write a blog. Create a journal. Send letters. Capture moments. When you look back, the “normal” days, simple encounters, and routine meals might teach you something extraordinary. Just look at Pausanias. Through his travels and first-hand documentation, new perspectives have been developed. Maybe yours will spark new thoughts too.

Don't Waste the Opportunity, Make the Most of it!

Capture moments with pictures, buy t-shirts, purchase that knock-off sculpture of Zeus you always wanted, do things you never thought you would do, face your fears, embrace discomfort...be spontaneous, immerse yourself, AND write about it all along the way. Allow your abroad experience to become timelessly formative, that is how you make the most of study abroad.

So...go! Study abroad, wherever you choose.

...but, in case no one else tells you this, GO TO GREECE

This article was contributed by College Year in Athens (CYA), an international study abroad organization founded over 50 years. All CYA programs are dedicated to inspiring students both while abroad and when they return home and begin building their futures.