When I was seventeen and deciding where I wanted to go to college I had no idea what I wanted. I did not care if I went to a city school or a school in the middle or nowhere. I had no preference if the school was big or small. The only qualification I was sure of was that I wanted to go to a school that offered study abroad. I am currently a senior at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. where over 50% of the student body chooses to study abroad. I am a Psychology major and Creative Writing minor and though I’m not sure exactly what I want to do after I graduate, my main goal in life has always been to help others. I am currently interning at a non-profit called Split This Rock, which is an organization that brings together poetry and social injustice in the U.S. Capitol. I am a strong believer in astrology and as a Libra I am always striving to find balance in my life. My interests include OPI nail polish, French onion soup, American Horror Story, instagramming my food, journaling, and of course…travel.
This past spring I made the decision to study abroad in Beijing, China. Studying abroad is an unforgettable experience no matter which country you choose to go to, but it’s still very important to decide on the best program for you. Many factors led to me to study abroad in Beijing through The Alliance for Global Education (Alliance). Most importantly I knew I wanted to study in China so I could practice my Chinese language skills, but I was unsure about the exact city: Beijing or Shanghai? I ended up picking Beijing because it has much more traditional culture and history than Shanghai, which has become very Western and modernized.
Another factor that led me to choose Alliance over other study abroad programs was its size. My abroad program only hosted 11 students, while many other programs had nearly 100. I thought that a small program would be more manageable (though at times I did wish it was bigger). I think 30 people would have been perfect. I also decided to pick Alliance because it offered two weeks off for travel, and I knew that seeing other parts of China was another top priority.
I also wanted to consider the intensity of language learning; I picked a program that required attending Chinese language class every day, but my other classes were taught in English and were less rigorous. I did not want to take a hugely intensive class load because I also wanted to have time to go out and explore, rather than being stuck inside studying all the time.
I spent four months studying abroad and while I really enjoyed it there were also a lot of things I learned. If I could redo my experience, here are the main tips I would follow:
1. Make friends with locals.
This is something I definitely wish I had done more of. Join clubs at your study abroad university, approach people in the cafeteria, and go to bars with more locals than Americans. You may feel out of your comfort zone, but that’s the point!
2. Eat everything.
Try new foods; eat things even when you don’t know what they are (as long as they as deemed safe for you to ingest). On my third day in Beijing, I tried fried silk worms… and then spit them out on the street. But hey, at least I tried!
3. Travel alone and travel as much as possible.
Don’t be scared! Take a weekend trip out of the city by yourself and you won’t regret it. Traveling alone is a great way to meet new people and find yourself. That being said, when you’re traveling alone you must be aware and be cautious. When I took a weekend trip alone to Qingdao I ended up in a questionable and unsafe situation (thankfully it all ended up alright and I’m here to tell you about it, but that’s not always the case). In short, I ended up spending the entire day with, and dependent on, strangers for transportation because of a language miscommunication that occurred in the morning. Luckily these strangers ended up being very nice people and I returned to my hostel safely at the end of the day. From this situation I learned that it is key to be aware so that you don’t put yourself in a dangerous position. However, this experience also taught me that following your instinct while also taking those precautions can allow for unique experiences.
4. Be open to the new culture.
One big problem many people talk about when they are preparing to go abroad is “culture shock”. I think that this is a problem that is very easy to avoid as long as you come into your study abroad experience with an open mind. You should know that things aren’t going to be like they are in America, so don’t compare everything back to that! You aren’t in America so of course things will be different, but you should embrace them before your time in this country comes to an end.
5. Embrace all the unique things your abroad city has to offer.
Explore more than just the tourist attractions. Find websites that post events happening in your city each weekend (it took me way too long to start doing this). Plus once you make friends with locals, go out with them! They will know better than any website.
6. Put down your cell phone!
Stop searching for wi-fi. Shut the phone down. Your friends from back home will still be there when you get back, but you will never be back in this city, at this age, with these people EVER AGAIN! Disconnect and you will become a more relaxed person and be more immersed in your abroad experience.
7. Befriend people you wouldn’t necessarily approach back home.
Accept your new friends for who they are and learn to love people for their differences.
8. Speak the language, no matter what.
If you are in a city with a non-native language, speak the new language as much as possible. Don’t be nervous or embarrassed—I wasted so much time letting other people speak Chinese for me because I was embarrassed of my language skills. This is the only way you will improve! You might get laughed at, but most of the time people are really nice when they see that you’re trying.
Don’t set your expectations of abroad too high or get stressed about trying to accomplish everything you want to do in a short period of time. Although you should try to travel and make the most of your time abroad, if you are spreading yourself too thin you will end up stressed and not able to enjoy your time.
9. Keep a journal!
Write down everything that you experience so you’ll never forget this once in a lifetime experience.
Image: Courtesy of Alex Borden