None of the pre-departure sessions given by my university’s study abroad organization could have prepared me for the experience I’ve had while on exchange for four months.
Most people assume that a study abroad or international exchange will be the experience of a lifetime, full of new and exciting adventures that will forever be looked nostalgically upon as some of the best days of our lives.
But nobody can prepare you for the amount of curveballs that will be thrown at you, the unexpected challenges you’ll encounter, nor the countless lessons you’ll have to learn.
I’ve learned a ton of things in this indubitably exciting but at times overwhelming chapter in my life, and so I thought I’d share the top ten things (from the obvious, the difficult, the random, the philosophical, or otherwise) I’ve learned from studying in Spain this year.
1) The experience of studying abroad is different for everyone.
For some people, six months to a year living in another country isn’t the hugest transition for them; perhaps they traveled to a number of places during their childhood and early adult life, or moved out of state or out of country for university.
For others, their exchange might be the first time they’ve left their parents’ home, or even be the first time they’ve gone somewhere other than their home country.
No matter what your preconceptions are about studying abroad, no matter the things you hear, both spectacular and horrific, from other students or friends who have studied abroad, everybody experiences studying abroad differently.
No one study abroad experience is the same, but neither is a particular study abroad experience better than somebody else’s. There isn’t one way a study abroad experience is supposed to be. The best thing you can do is take advantage of the time you have while you’re abroad and make the most of it, no matter the ups and downs, challenges, or hardships that you face.
2) You have more free time than you can shake a stick at.
Whether you’re taking just one class or a full course load (five classes), you will most likely find yourself with more free time than you have back home. And in Spain, especially, the university environment is pretty lax. There are no classes on Fridays, and there are constantly festivals and holidays and strikes that result in a day off from school, and many a day where professors just don’t show up.
There will be plenty of days where you literally have nothing you have to do, which can lend itself to a number of things; an impromptu trip on your own or with friends to a new area of the city or a new site you haven’t been to yet; a tapas or ice cream run; or an afternoon or evening or sometimes even a full day inside, doing just about nothing.
So while some of your free days may end up being spent lounging for far too long in your room exploring social media or catching up on TV shows and movies, luckily, in a place like Granada, there are always things to do.
3) Homesickness happens.
Anyone who’s packed up their lives and moved into a student residence or an apartment in another city, state, or, in my case, country, will have experienced the phenomenon that is homesickness. Usually, after a brief honeymoon period of being in a new environment surrounded by new people just as scared and as hell-bent on making friends as you are, the euphoria fades, reality sets in, and you find yourself missing home. Missing your parents, missing your friends, missing your home, missing the familiar, the comfortable.
And when you’re abroad, like internationally abroad, somehow homesickness feels worse. Whether it be because you’re farther away, because you’re in a place where the language spoken is not your first language, or because you’re in a place that isn’t your home, and one that you’ve only had a couple weeks or months to adjust to, when homesickness hits it can be really tough. Even to the point where you feel down or low or even depressed and you’re not entirely sure why.
But what I’ve been told, and what I continue to tell myself whenever I find myself nostalgic, is that this is normal. Plus, I find that there are few things more special than being abroad and realizing just how wonderful your home is.
4) Getting sick sucks.
Even regular colds can seem that much more debilitating when you’re abroad. Both physically and psychologically. Just like going off to college and getting sick for the first time away from home, getting sick when your family’s nowhere near you can be hard. And of course even the most benign of sicknesses often result in bouts of homesickness. See 2).
Also, sometimes, as happened to both me and one of my closest friends Lisa, you catch a bug or a virus that you’ve never had before and you have absolutely NO IDEA what it is, and you’re bedridden for a number of days. So not only are you incapacitated for goodness-knows how many days, there’s really not much you can do other than wait it out. Without family. Without the friends around who would normally come to your aid in a time like this. And yeah, it sucks.
But, just like all adversity in life, you get through it, and you get better. And life goes on.
5) No matter how careful you are, you end up spending more money than you intend to.
Food costs money. Lodging costs money, whether it be with a homestay family, in a shared student apartment, in student residence, or in a hostel. Transportation costs money. Cell phone plans cost money. International calling and postcard-sending cost money.
And when you’re going on day or weekend trips, unexpected expenses always arise. You were really tired that morning so you ordered that coffee at that train station. You forgot your water bottle, and the water here isn’t potable, so you had to spend that 1-2 euro on a liter of water. And then there’s the ever-so-occasional (or perhaps frequent) morning where you wake up and think to yourself, where the heck did that 30 euro go…and then you remember you were at a tapas bar or regular bar or discoteca (or a combination of these) the night before.
Long story short, whether you’re studying or traveling abroad, just like in real life, stuff costs money. And it’s all about budgeting, learning how to budget, and continuing to distinguish between a worth-it versus not-worth-it purchase. A cheap flight to the Canary Islands for a weekend? Worth it.
A 30+ euro night out at a discoteca, buying shots for you and your friends and dancin’ it up like fools? YOLO, right? Maybe once or twice, sure, why not. But every other night? Probably not.
6) You sometimes lose almost if not all motivation to study and go to class.
Here in Granada, we exchange students already have the luxury of three day weekends, with there being no classes on Fridays (at least in most faculties at UGR). Those three-day weekends are also so very easily extendable into four or even five-day weekends, if a trip seems timely at that point in time. Hence your four-day school week sometimes becomes a two to three day school week, and suddenly you’ve lost all focus as you find yourself in class flight-, hostel-, bus-, Lonely Planet- and blog- (in my case) searching, and then you look up and the prof’s done talking and your class is over and OH MY GOSH WHERE DID THE TIME GO?
(Note: I am not suggesting in any way that this is the scenario for every international exchange student studying here, I’ve just found this has been the case for me…on several occasions).
And then of course there are countless Erasmus events going on NIGHTLY, with enticing prices at popular places, and as you’re in Spain, these parties rage till the wee hours of the morning and then who the heck would want to go to a 9am or even 10am class when you don’t even get home from a night out until 6 in the morning?
While we are here for the purpose of studying, there is so much other stuff going on, so many opportunities to travel and sightsee and meet new people that at least for me, the actual “studying” and “going to school” hasn’t been at the top of my priorities list (for the first time in my life, I might add.)
7) The concept of being on time does not exist everywhere.
The concept of time in Spain is drastically different than what I’m used to in Vancouver and Seattle. Busses are often late. Class doesn’t really start right on the hour. Students show up late. Professors show up late. Actually, professors showing up 15-30 minutes late to lecture is normal…and it’s just as normal for them to carry on well past the class end time to make up for their being late.
Being on time for a social outing, whether it be for tapas, at a house party, or meeting up at a bar or discoteca, usually means arriving between a forty-five minutes to three hours late. There is a wide time frame during which it is acceptable to show up for things. And I’m the girl who’s always on time (in first year university they called me a keener…), so this whole “show up whenever” thing and “hope the party’s still going and hasn’t moved somewhere else” thing is new to me.
So let’s just say I’ve gotten used to the plans I make not actually happening or starting until a good deal later than the originally agreed upon time. And so it goes.
8) Keeping in touch with people back home can be difficult, and not always desirable.
Some friends will want to keep in touch with you regularly while you’re abroad, others won’t. You’ll want to keep in touch with certain people regularly, and you won’t want to with others. Whether it’s iMessage, WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, SnapChat, Skype, or email, there certainly are easy and convenient ways to communicate with friends and family while you’re abroad. But the reality is we all have lives and sometimes someone’s first priority isn’t responding to that witty text, that long-drawn-out, dramatic Facebook message, or that supposedly hilarious SnapChat.
Furthermore, I have found that taking break from all methods of phone or online communication with people back home can be liberating. While updating your family or close friends on upcoming travels or new, exciting experiences can be gratifying, sometimes it’s nice to unplug and just live without the constant nag of technology.
When it comes down to it, if you’re on a study abroad, you won’t be gone forever. You will at one point in time return to your home, to your family and to those friends you wish you had stayed in better contact with. Nevertheless, more often than not, from that first hug after months apart, a lot of relationships revert comfortably to where they were, as if it had only been yesterday that you’d seen them last.
9) Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.
Yes, that’s a quote from the Seattle rapper Macklemore. But it has indubitably been the most important lesson I’ve learned over and over during the course of this trip.
My experience with the University of Granada, for example, was nothing like I expected it would be. With its massive size, its integral role in the city, and its illustrious history, I thought for sure my chance to study in its hallowed halls would be a momentous, irreplaceable one.
However, from the clerical problems I encountered in applying here, to the frustratingly slow registration process and dysfunctional bureaucratic system, to the sometimes lackadaisical classroom atmosphere, for me, UGR did not live up to its favorable reputation. And I’ve spent far too much time letting myself be disappointed about this. If I take a step back and realize at least I ended up in one class I thoroughly enjoy, from the lectures to the required reading to (surprisingly enough) re-reading the material and composing an open-ended essay on it for my final exam, then the unmet expectation I had of the supposedly stellar experience I’d have at UGR doesn’t result in as much as a resentment or disappointment.
An example of an instance where I benefited from this lesson learned would be my trip to Paris. I idealistically assumed that the second I got there I would instantly fall in love with the iconic French city. And you know what? I didn’t. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy myself there, but it took me until my last day there to realize just how dynamic of a city Paris is, to realize that I did indeed want to spend more time there to see if the city would charm me more. I kept an open mind, gave the city a chance, made the most of my experience there, and everything turned out alright.
Which brings me to the last and sort of all-encompassing lesson I learned from four months studying abroad in Europe:
10) One of the best things you can do to make the most of your study abroad experience is to keep an open mind.
One of my dear friends Mika, who studied abroad this past semester in Florence, mentioned this in one of her blog posts, and I agree 100%. Being open, keeping an open mind, is the best thing to do in almost every situation. Whether it comes to meeting new people, visiting new places, trying out new tapas restaurants in new neighborhoods, checking out a new bar or discoteca, or figuring out where to go on your next trip, the single best thing I’ve done for myself in these situations has been keeping an open mind.
When it comes to people, no matter where they’re from, what their beliefs are, or what their cultural background is, more often than not they will surprise you, and you will surprise yourself with the diversity of people you end up meeting, getting to know, and even making long-lasting friendships with.
When it comes to seeing new things, you’ll never truly know how dynamic or interesting a sight is until you get there. And with an open mind, you’ll be surprised just what you take from each an every new sight you visit.
When it comes to seeking out new food and drink, well, that’s sort of a no-brainer. The more places you try, the more likely you’ll find the tastiest tapas and most refreshing and tipsiness-inducing drinks. From croquetas to berenjenas con miel and from the classic tinto de verano, the various Alhambra brand-drafts, to my new favorite, the tinto version of beer, clara con limón, Granada in particular has so much to offer in terms of food and drink, and some of the best things I’ve had in the past four months have been when I open-mindedly sought out new places or was brought somewhere new by a friend (stay tuned on a post all about FOOD!).
And last but not least, when it comes to traveling to a new place or a new country, no matter how much Lonely Planet researching you do or how many blog posts or new articles you read on things to do or can’t-miss spots in that new place or country, you’ll do yourself a great favor if you keep an open mind and rid yourself of any expectations prior to taking the trip. You’ll enjoy everything that much more, or experience less (or no) disappointment in the event that you aren’t blown away by or in love with everywhere you go (which will certainly be the case).
Granada was unlike any other experience I’ve had. I am endlessly grateful for every person I’ve met and every friend I’ve made, every place I got to see and new country I got to visit, and for the lessons I’ve learned and changes and improvements I’ve made for myself and my own life.
But I’m ready for a new adventure, a new journey to experience fully, live and learn openly, and embrace without any expectation, prejudice, or preconception. I hope at the very least to take these lessons with me, and always remember, when in a new country, a new continent, or a new environment, one in which you don’t always have control over how things will go:
when you become comfortable with uncertainty, infinite possibilities open up in your life
– Eckhart Tolle
With this thought in mind, along with all my other favorite quotes about life and happiness, I can’t help but add a number 11) to the list.
When an opportunity comes, seize it. Live in the moment and make the most of the moment you’re in. Life is short but sweet for certain, so live every day like it’s your last and reach for the sky because tomorrow may never come. The time is now. Chulla vida.