Study abroad survival guide
Summer is a time for relaxation. The stifling heat makes lounging on the beach seem like the only sane course of action and the cooler nights a great incentive to party until the sun comes up. Most will be clinging to these heady days desperately, putting thoughts of study far from their mind in a futile effort to prolong the season.
For one group though, the summer cannot seem to pass quickly enough as the approaching autumn brings with it a whole new adventure.
Studying abroad is a fantastic way to meet new people, gain a broader perspective and make useful contacts, but gearing up for take-off can be exhausting and stressful.
Here are a couple of practical ideas for making the planning and preparation (‘the boring bits’) as painless as possible.
You have no doubt amassed an impressive collection of application forms, contracts, learning agreements, flight bookings and other miscellaneous (but no less important) pieces of paper. Collect them all then make a copy of everything.
Take one with you and leave one at home. These will come in handy when dealing with any administrative issues that crop up before, during or after your period of study.
Find out if you need any special travel documents like a visa, and keep a copy of your acceptance letter handy when you travel – it is proof that you have a purpose in the country and that an institution will vouch for you if something is amiss.
If you intend to supplement your finances by taking on a part-time job, find out if you need a work permit and apply if necessary.
Also make sure that you have at least one other current form of identification like an ID card or driving licence so you will not need to carry your passport around all the time.
Make a copy of the prescription for your glasses – this will save you a lot of trouble and money if you lose or break them. If you take any prescription medication, get a new prescription from your doctor, complete with his official stamp.
Make sure you’re up to date on any vaccinations you might need for travel to your destination country. Pack some paracetamol and sticky plasters – nothing dampens a day like a headache or blisters, but keep in mind that you can find pharmacies pretty much everywhere.
Keep a close watch on your finances; if you have never lived alone before, you’ll be in for a shock at how easily the bills pile up. Have a rough idea of how much money you can afford to spend per month, factoring in basics like food and rent, entertainment and extras as well as any earnings from a job, should you get one. If you plan to travel, consider that too.
Also consider having an emergency fund – perhaps an online bank account or credit card – for unexpected expenses like hospital bills and unplanned flights.
Keep them informed
Sometimes you need a little help. When that help comes from back home, your family or friends will need certain information. Leave a copy of your bank account details for emergency bailouts, your address abroad for care packages or forwarded mail and a direct contact number for when an e-mail isn’t enough.
Even before you get there, you can start creating a network for yourself. Most universities and their exchange programmes have an internet presence on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites. Sign up to groups, introduce yourself and start talking to future or current students. Once you arrive, you’ll probably be invited to orientation or induction events.
If you’re planning on getting a local mobile phone number, write it down somewhere so you can give it to new acquaintances and use it when filling out forms for activities, groups or events.
Research your new home
Those orientation events will cover most of the important stuff – the closest supermarket and pharmacy, using public transport and other basic information.
Still, it can’t hurt to do a little research on the town and region in which you’ll be living. It will give you an idea of travel times and any sites worth visiting and it will generally help you feel less lost.
If you would like to discover hiking trails, where the nearest thrift store is located or where you can find a church, a search engine is your best friend.
Use the opportunity
You are going to be in a strange and exciting place with lots of potential new friends. Find out where you can go using public transport or car pooling. Make your city a base and visit somewhere different every weekend. If you’re on a budget, invest in a good second-hand bicycle and make your own way.
Naturally, safety rules should always apply – if you’re going alone, let someone know and don’t accept lifts from strangers. But you have the chance to explore a part of the world from a whole new perspective – take advantage of that.
Pack light and pack old
On a more practical note, packing is possibly the most stressful thing you’ll need to do. What’s worse is that you’ll have to do it twice – once at home and once abroad, not counting any travelling you do while away.
Airline weight restrictions can be a nightmare for anyone packing for four months or a year. One trick I learnt from a seasoned traveller is to pack as little as you possibly can (you’re a student, you are morally obliged to use clothes way longer than you should before you wash them) and pack items that probably won’t survive the journey home. This makes room for any new acquisitions you want to take home and it also means less folding, so everyone wins.
Throw a party
No, really. Organise a going away event to meet up with your nearest and dearest before your communication is solely technological. And who knows, some guests might even bring you gifts!
Take plenty of pictures and have them printed – they make great wall decorations for your new room. You can also use this time to convince people to visit you while you’re abroad – after all, you’ll be an expert in no time and sharing a new city with someone gives you the chance to appreciate it all over again.