Whether you’re exploring the idea of studying abroad, or you’ve already selected a program and picked your flight, you probably have so many questions about what your upcoming semester will be like and how to prepare for it. Having studied abroad in Madrid, Spain during my first semester of freshman year and leaving for Poland this week, I’ve gathered a few tips and experiences of my own that might help!
Flashback to my first semester
I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom staring blankly at an empty suitcase with absolutely no idea what I was doing. How am I supposed to fit three seasons worth of clothing into one suitcase? How do I plan my travels and expenses? What if I forget something? How will I stay in touch with family?
These questions danced around in my head for a while and I was nervous about them all, but I realized I’d just have to figure it out along the way, and I did. I’m not going to lie, but I definitely overpacked with things I thought I’d wear but never did, or things that I really didn’t need. So, here’s what I learned.
Packing just might be the hardest part of studying abroad, but once you’re done, you’re ready to embark on your new journey. When trying to fit multiple seasons into one suitcase, one carry-on and one personal item, it’s best to start with the absolute essentials and go from there.
Most, if not all, toiletries can be bought once you arrive overseas, so don’t waste luggage space bringing your own full-sized products. Travel-sized products are your best friends until you arrive at your homestay.
Pack in layers! Depending on where you’re studying, climates may be very different and you may have to pack for multiple seasons. I wanted to bring all of my favorite sweaters and bulky items when I left for my first semester of college, but it just wasn’t feasible. Bring some of your favorites but otherwise stick to the basics. Pack things that can be layered or re-worn with multiple outfits. Also, think ahead about what you plan to buy from places you visit. For example, if you plan to buy hoodies as souvenirs, be sure to save extra space by leaving a few hoodies at home.
The one piece of advice I would give on electronics is to purchase an outlet/plug converter. Outlets are completely different depending on where you travel to. While you could wait to purchase one until after you arrive, there’s no telling when you will have access to one. If you are out of battery when you land and want to communicate with friends and family, you may have to wait until you can find a store that sells them somewhere in the city rather than quickly charging at the airport.
Budgeting is a huge part of being prepared. Trust me, I know how tempting it is to stop by your favorite new local coffee shop every day after class. However, if you cut down to even one to two coffees a week, that could quickly add up to a nice dinner out with your friends or even a flight to another country. I was able to book most of my roundtrip flights for less than a hundred euros, so the small things really do add up.
Also, be sure to let your bank know when you will be traveling to different countries. Many of my friends have experienced the stress of declined cards while traveling, and it can definitely put a damper on your trip. Most banks have mobile apps where you can manually enter your travel dates making spends and communication with the bank much easier for me while making weekend trips.
While you’re studying in another country and exploring the world, your friends and family will want to stay connected and hear about all of your incredible experiences. To stay in touch when overseas, you can enroll in international data and texting plans. Purchase a SIM card, create a ‘WhatsApp’ account or simply use social media messaging (as long as you have WiFi). I suggest calling your carrier and exploring your options before you make any decisions!
Here’s my advice on how to optimize your experience.
Say “yes” to new opportunities.
Most campuses will have events or activities that you can participate in to get to know the city and the culture. In Madrid, I was able to take a flamenco dance class, a traditional Spanish cooking class and many walking (and eating) tours of the city through the school for only $3.
Take your host family and/or local friends up on offers to explore.
Many times, my host mother would invite me to cook dinner with her and learn recipes. I was even able to tour a museum with her, just the two of us one night. Taking a step outside your comfort zone will allow you to create special moments that you’ll never forget. Those special moments I had with my host families became some of my favorite memories and also helped me improve my language skills, learn about the history of Madrid and know my way around the city.
Put yourself out there and engage with locals.
Local friends can show you the ins and outs of the city that you might not have seen before and immerse you in the culture and rhythm of the city/country.
Find something special, whether it be a place, an activity or a routine.
When I was in Spain, my favorite thing to do was riding the boats in Retiro Park, one of the largest parks in Madrid. Full of gardens, bike paths and small museums, it was always full of people and art, thus making it a wonderful place to experience the culture of Madrid and take a break from school work. I highly suggest finding a place or activity in the city that you love to do or visit over and over again. These will make your semester abroad even more memorable.
All of these tips are things that I have learned from my time abroad, and they are lessons that I will bring with me in all of my future travels. I hope that they answered any questions you might have had about studying abroad and how to prepare for it. Happy travels!
Our “Postcards” series features stories from Syracuse University students exploring other parts of the world. Jacqueline Murrer is a junior studying international relations with a concentration in intercultural communications and minoring in Spanish. She is one of four contributors to the series and this is her first Postcard from her semester in Wroclaw, Poland.