How to Turn Your Study Abroad Into A Rewarding Cultural Experience

Omolayo Nkem May 21, 2016
Omolayo Nkem studied abroad in Senegal in 2015.

When it comes to exploring a new country, students who are studying abroad have all the fun! Their experiences are immersive but structured. They are exposed to a variety of things and often gain depth of knowledge as well. They come away with friends, memories and language skills that make them feel forever connected with their study abroad location.

When vacationing – a week, a month, or more – the study abroad experience can be impossible to replicate. Having studied abroad twice myself, here are some of the unique features of study abroad programs and how you can use them to turn your vacation into a more immersive experience.

1. Stay with locals.
If you know no one there, find a friend of a friend. Host families are a staple in many study abroad experiences. They give you direct access to the locals and allow you to see and experience what it’s like to live in that city on a daily basis. Many times, students might even form lasting bonds with their host families. It’s also a great way to immerse in the local language and culture because you live it out in the streets and when you get ‘home’ as well. There are companies out there like Homestay, that offer host family services even if you aren’t part of a study abroad program. Or you could try renting just one room in an Airbnb house – they won’t exactly be your host family, but you’ll be around them.

2. Stay in hostel.
If a host family or friend of a friend seems too sketchy for you, try staying in a hostel. A hostel is more likely to have people who are actually studying abroad there, wish to experience the culture more closely, or just a bunch of randos on a budget. Either way – student mindset!

3. Do your research
No, I don’t mean all the best bars and restaurants. Students usually have to read a book or two that highlights the history and culture of the location they are headed to. Know the current president, prime minister, king, etc., some news topics and any other thing that people might be talking about. It will also prepare you for number 7 and 8.

4. Keep a journal
Having to reflect on your experiences gives it a reflection component found in many study abroad programs. In your journal, don’t just talk about what you did, but also what you’ve learned – things you expected and things that surprised you, and also how you’re growing through the experience.

5. Do some tourist stuff
Let’s be honest, most study abroad programs don’t just throw the students into cultural immersion and leave them there. There are still a handful of guided tours and other touristy activities mixed in with their immersive experiences. Make sure you check the tourist spots as well. After all, there is a reason those tourist spots are an attraction – it won’t hurt you to check out what all the hollabaloo is about. Besides, many of these spots are historical landmarks and will allow you to gain an even deeper understanding of where you are. Plus, great photo-ops.

6. Learn the language
Most students are required to learn a few words in the language of their host nation. When I was studying abroad in Senegal, I was taking Wolof classes at the Baobab Center since my Wolof level was above what my program offered. The Baobab Center works with study abroad programs, government officials and individuals – basically anyone who is interested in learning the local languages. I only went to the center about once a week. One week, I ran into this guy in the hallway who was from a Scandinavian country – I forgot which one. He was on his vacation and he was traveling through West Africa. He decided to take intensive language classes in all the countries he stopped in and that was his idea of a fun vacation. Awesome. You don’t have to go to that extreme with your language learning, but you should make a concerted effort to get to know the lingua-franca and customs. Before you get to any country, make sure you know how to say: Hello (and the customary things that come with it – how are you, I’m fine, etc.), Please, Thank You, You’re welcome, Where is…, No (especially if you’re a girl), Yes, How do you say…, Have a nice day, Goodbye. And you’ll be well on your way to:

7. Make a friend
Like I said in number one, getting to know locals is one of the best ways to stay immersed. The ability to make a friend or two in a new country really depends on what activities you’re involved in and how long you are there. Going to places where locals hang out will definitely help (See 8). Another perk about making a friend is that you’ll always have a connection to that country that goes beyond the memories and the pictures and it’s a way to keep up the language once you get home.

8. Hit up the nightclubs, bars, etc.
Some people try and make fun of the people who party on their study abroad experience – and yes clearly you shouldn’t do too much of it, but let’s be honest, most everyone does at least a bit of it. Besides, the locals party too! So find the local hot spots (no, not where all the expats are, although it doesn’t hurt to check that place out once as well). Checking out the night scene, if city you’re in has one, is a great way to accomplish number 6 and 7 as well!

9. Volunteer
Most study abroad experiences usually have an internship or service component, or both. Since you probably won’t be vacationing long enough to do an internship, try doing service for one or more days that you’re in the area. It allows you to address some local issues while meeting the people and communities affected by that issue but are also helping to alleviate it. Also if it interests you – there’s a whole line of Volunteer tourism – although I have some thoughts about that…go ahead and check it out anyways.

10. Roam the paths less taken.
I think this is perhaps the number one advice given to people who are trying not to be too touristy. But that’s because it’s the most effective! There is nothing wrong with doing touristy stuff (see number 5), but if you want to get immersed, go to the places that tourists don’t usually go. Chances are people who work in and around the tourist spots know English and so it will be hard for you to get immersed. Locals there are used to foreigners, so forming meaningful friendships might be harder. Number 1 and Number 7 will definitely help in finding the hot spots that can’t be found in any guidebook. Don’t be afraid to get lost and ask for directions. Have a plan, but be flexible. All of these things allow you to have a truly immersive experience on your vacation – the way study abroad should be.

If you are vacationing in the U.S. or any country that speaks English, all of these tips still apply – sometimes even number 6.

Those of you who have studied abroad or vacationed like a study abroad student, do you have any other suggestions on how to make vacation more immersive and engaging? Please leave your suggestions/comments below.

Last Edited by:Sandra Appiah Updated: May 23, 2016


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