Hindsight is 20-20, making decisions and reactions which were perfectly sensible at the time foolish and embarrassing. Before taking the plunge into studying abroad, learn from others’ experiences and relish in avoiding some missteps.
1—It’s not all sunshine and rainbows. As much fun as studying abroad is, being across an ocean from friends and family can be hard.
“Sometimes you do just sit in your apartment and feel sad and lonely,” Rikke Holm, of Denmark, said.
This reality can be circumvented with careful application of Skype conversations, sugar and party trolling. Keeping busy really is the best treatment to homesickness and gloom, but a few days is completely normal and should be expected. Holiday seasons are particularly brutal.
2—Not all grades are created equal. Grading systems change from school to school, much less country to country. Make sure to figure out ahead of time how to get grades which are transferable; a lot of times this means requesting ECTS grades. Figuring out how each teacher calculates those grades is an even greater cross-cultural communication challenge. Make sure to give yourself a head start in these discussions—asking right before the end exam is not a good idea.
3—Credit cards have PIN codes. Maybe this was only a surprise for me, but being unable to use a credit card for an expensive train ticket because they didn’t take signature verification was a shock. A particularly unpleasant one as my debit card takes a transaction fee my credit card avoids.
Also, I had never seen a card with a chip in it rather than a magnetic strip: the cashiers here are the other way around. Hand them a card with a magnetic strip and be prepared to wait six minutes as they ask all their friends how the heck they’re supposed to charge this, because of course they won’t ask the person who owns the card.
4—Locals dodge spontaneous meetings. A frequent complaint is that exchange students are unable to get to know local students, instead being surrounded by fellow exchanges. Often local students who aren’t heavily involved in student groups targeting exchange students will duck and dodge away when they see one approach. So far, the most common reason for this has been hesitancy in speaking English. Trying to speak the local language and letting them laugh at your horrible accent serves as a good icebreaker in these cases.
5—Trains are late. As soon as you say it, it sounds stupid to think otherwise. If public transit is unreliable at home, why would it be different abroad? But think about it: a stereotype is that public transit is used more often in Europe. More frequent use and higher demand would lead to greater demand for reliability. That seems a logical progression; unfortunately it didn’t turn out that way. As three hours on an open platform in the middle of the night indicate, more frequent trains just mean more frequent delays. Don’t pack your deck of cards at the bottom of your bag.
Hopefully some of these will make your own traveling experiences a bit easier. No matter what though, expecting the unexpected is a must. If you couldn’t rely on something unexpected happening, it wouldn’t be much of an adventure after all.