Sarah F. spent her 2015 fall semester studying in beautiful Perugia, Italy with CISabroad. She is currently a CISabroad alumni ambassador and is finishing up her degree in Early Childhood and Special Education with a minor in International Studies at Elizabethtown College.
I’m a worrier, an over-thinker, a perpetual planner, a type A… needless to say, I had many questions about study abroad and by “many,” I mean that my study abroad director’s name was always within the first three emails in my inbox and my CISabroad program coordinator could have been on speed dial. I asked my questions and I got my answers, but the only thing that truly settled my mind was the “abroad” component of studying abroad. It wasn’t until I was in the town where I studied that I finally took a sigh of relief and realized that all my questions would pan out much like everyone had reassured me they would. Of course, that was the exhale. The subsequent “inhale” was wrought with many more questions that simply wouldn’t be resolved until I experienced my way into the answers. Study abroad is an exciting whirlwind of an adventure and when you blink, it’s over. Why fill your mind with concerns that in hindsight will seem pointless when you could instead live every adventurous moment to its fullest? With that in mind, I’ll share with you some of the things I wish someone would have told me about study abroad when I was in your shoes before my exciting departure.
1. The visa process can be stressful.
Although CISabroad will get you the material you need to complete your visa application, it is imperative that you plan and schedule an appointment with the consulate in advance. Do not wait until after you get the material (like enrollment and insurance letters) from your provider to make an appointment. Consulates book up well in advance and even though you can schedule your appointment for a later date, waiting until later to try to schedule it is just added stress. Call as soon as possible to schedule an appointment. Be kind to the consulate no matter how gruff they may seem. Ultimately, your goal is documentation from them that will allow you to enter your program’s country. Do not make enemies, and be patient, as they have many visas to process. On a side note, if you are a U.S. citizen, your country of citizenship is “United States of America,” not “America.” Save yourself the embarrassment that I encountered and note this.
2. Pack in advance. Make a list. Check it twice…and thrice.
Do not save packing until the last minute. I will be writing another post about packing and what to bring, but start with a list of the essentials. A unique way to do this, that ensured that I remembered everything, was to keep a small notebook nearby for a few days. Whenever I did anything that is part of my daily routine, such as putting in contacts, showering, going outside and taking an umbrella if it’s raining, etc., I would write the essential materials (contacts, contact solution, shampoo, an umbrella) in the notebook. This is a way to ensure that the essential materials that are part of your routine make it into your suitcase. Allow yourself time to add to the list, to realize that not everything fits, and to repack. Trust me, this is much less stressful than waiting until the last minute! And yes, you will be able to live without peanut butter (or whatever your guilty pleasure is) for a few months.
3. Trust the program!
The study abroad programs are responsible and reliable. They will not be your parent while you are there; if you are mature enough to study abroad, you must be mature enough to handle yourself responsibly. They will, however, make sure that your needs are met. Be honest with them about what you need medically, academically, and in any other way so that they can help you to the best of their ability. You do not know everything when you board your plane. You might not know what to expect at the airport or the first few days, but if anything expect this: You will arrive in your destination in the capable hands of the people who want to make your semester as wonderful as you do. They are there to help you. Trust them and know that the arrival process will be taken care of.
4. Do not make promises you can’t keep.
This seems very blunt, but before I left, I believe I promised more people than I could count that I would send postcards. The reality is that international mail is expensive and promising this or souvenirs to people with whom you are not close will only cost you money that you may not have while abroad or room in your suitcase that you didn’t consider while packing. Be realistic with yourself and send postcards to those whom you know will treasure them and take souvenirs as gifts for the special people in your life. You cannot take them for everyone, and that’s fine. Promise instead to take lots of pictures and to share your amazing experiences with them when you return.
5. Do not only rely on the program-suggested cell phone provider.
I know a few students, including myself, who had a difficult time with the cell phone provider that the school suggested we use. Although this may seem convenient, depending on your location, there may be others in town that are more affordable and worth considering. Use wi-fi, if it’s available, to let your family know that you’ve arrived safely, until you find the smartest option for your own needs. Although it’s certainly not necessary, having a navigation app on your phone and access to data can make traveling so much easier and more enjoyable without the concern of getting lost.
6. Do not plan travel until after you have an idea of your classes and your friends.
It’s tempting to make plans of where else you’d like to explore immediately after stepping off the plane, but by waiting until a few weeks into the semester, I found that my planning and my trips were much more meaningful. By this time, you should have a better idea of who will be in your classes, when those classes will be, what days are necessary for you to stay in town for exams or other class commitments like field trips, and how transportation into and out of your town works.
7. Money seems easier to spend when it’s in the form of coins or in a currency you don’t understand.
If you’re studying in Europe, know that the lowest bill available is 5. There are 1 euro and 2 euro coins, as well as for cents. This is surprisingly important. Shelling out 3 euros in the form of coins seems to have fewer implications than paying in paper bills, but the coins that you spend add up quickly. Consider this while budgeting if you can’t seem to understand where your money is going (especially when many clerks in Italy practically demand that you pay with coins if you have them). It’s also important to familiarize yourself with the value of the foreign currency you’ll be using, as “not knowing” is a less acceptable excuse for how quickly you’re spending money if you’re going to be living there for a whole semester. Know the conversion rate so you can quickly have an idea in your head of how much something costs, but don’t rely on converting it to USD. Familiarizing yourself with the currency means also being able to know how much you’re spending without using a calculator. This is responsible traveling and living abroad!
Eccolo! (That’s Italian for “Voila!”)…Some random and hopefully helpful tips to consider before making the leap into potentially the most exciting and meaningful semester of your college career.