After moving my flight to stay in New Zealand for an extra five weeks, I left the country a few days ago. It was a long flight. For my seat mate, it was probably longer, since it’s always awkward when your seat partner’s crying. Sorry Brian.
I’m currently in California visiting relatives for a little while to further satisfy the travel bug, so I haven’t yet returned to Philly. People tell me I’ll “settle back into the swing of things,” “get back into the rhythm of it,” “feel like you never left.” But I did leave, and I don’t want to feel like I didn’t. Christchurch was good to me and for me; I’m not ready to go.
But that’s life, and I’m not the only person who feels this way. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a wonderful experience abroad, and there’s nothing stopping me from coming back to Christchurch, except the price of airfare. (ChCh is hosting the First Social Enterprise World Forum in September 2017…coincidence that I graduate that May?) The real point of this post is to offer my two cents on how to have a study abroad experience that makes you feel like you’re losing something when you go back home — how to create that new life that you don’t want to leave.
- Don’t try to become “transformed.”
Studying abroad is very much promoted as a transformational experience. You’re supposed to live in another country for not even half a year and return a changed person, a better person than who you were before. If you don’t go home with some obvious sign of your rapid personal growth and accelerated self development gained from X country, did you even ever leave?
This semester, I noticed a lot of my fellow international students feeling this pressure. People tried to figure out their transformation, the change they would present to people at home as proof that their semester had been fulfilling. But if you’re expecting an experience to change you in some preconceived way, it probably won’t. Many of my peers ended up catering their time abroad to suit whatever change they’d previously identified as wanting to have instead of letting the experience unfold on its own and influence them naturally.
So float with the tide of your time abroad, and don’t actively try to become transformed. Studying abroad is a way to live in a different place for a few months, so do that. It will be a much more fulfilling experience if you simply live, instead of trying to figure out how it’s going to change you.
- Stay off social media.
STAY FAR FAR AWAY. Social media is great for keeping in touch with people, but horrible for adjusting to a new place. Looking at pictures of your friends from home at a football game is not going to help you understand rugby and meet new people. You’re going to feel left out and homesick and you’re going to doubt your decision to go abroad. I don’t often get homesick, especially if I know I’m going back in half a year, but the first few weeks in New Zealand were rough.
In New Zealand, I also chose to buy a brick phone instead of swapping out the SIM card in my American smartphone. I say “chose,” but “forced” is more appropriate, since my SIM card is apparently un-swappable.
However, being unable to go online helped me focus on talking to people and living more in the moment, and some of my friends who chose to go the SIM card route said they wished they’d gone with the Alcatel One Touch (however primitive) like I did.
- Get to know the locals.
Meeting people while abroad can be really intimidating, and so it’s natural so drift toward other exchange students — especially other Americans. Sometimes you just need somebody to talk about our own culture with, and as an added incentive, locals aren’t always willing to start up a conversation. At Temple, how often did I make an effort to talk to the international kid in class?
In New Zealand, I had to work to make friends. Of course, I had a group of American friends who were also on exchange, and these were the people I did most of my traveling with because these were the people who wanted to explore the country. But stereotypically, American study abroad students go abroad and party with other American study abroad students. This is heaps of fun, but just be careful not to stop there–do an internship and join clubs and follow up with people you want to get to know. Locals will make fun of your accent (affectionately of course), but they’ll also show you the ropes, include you in their social circles, give you an authentic look at your host country, and let you stay with them when you have to move out of your flat three days before your flight back to the States (thanks Loz!).
Personally, I met people by joining UCanDance, UC’s ballroom dancing club, getting involved in the community through my internship with Ministry of Awesome, and constantly inviting people for lunch or coffee until we became friends. It worked (!) and I’ve formed friendships with a lot of New Zealanders that I know will last.
4. Depth over breadth.
You are not going to see everything while abroad. Half a year, or usually less, is but a blip. I’ve noticed that many international students try to go somewhere every weekend, or travel to as many neighboring countries as possible, but personally, I think the “depth over breadth” travel philosophy is better. Instead of getting glimpses of many different places, get to know a few in-depth. People ask me if I left New Zealand while there — no, I didn’t, but I know and understand NZ and I have relationships in NZ.
So, if you want to be like me and make your airplane seat mate uncomfortable, get to know local people in your host country, stay away from social media, and don’t try to cater your experience abroad to what other people expect. Let it be an experience, and take it slowly.