September 7, 2012

Survival Tips From a Used-to-be Expat College Student

Technology is increasingly making the workplace a global one. Even if you get a job in your home town, it’s likely you’ll find yourself interacting with people across the world, whether they’re customers, co-workers, or your boss. The ability to interact effectively with people of various cultures is becoming more and more important, which is why studying abroad during college can be such a valuable experience.

But besides the resume boost, I can tell you from personal experience that becoming an expat for a period of time can be one of the most rewarding things you ever do. My ability to speak another language is one of my proudest accomplishments, and through learning about another culture, I learned so much about my own.

Still, taking the leap to go abroad for all or part of college isn’t an easy decision. Leaving your comfort zone can be scary, so here are a few tips to make your experience a positive one.

Research the country before you go. If they speak a different language, you definitely want to arm yourself with some basic language skills before you get there, so you have a place to jump off from. But this isn’t enough by itself. Take the time to learn about the culture, the weather, the food, and the people to ensure that it’s the right fit for you.

Talk to someone who already went. Every country – and every college – will have different landmines to navigate, so find out what they are beforehand from someone who already went through it. Ask them to explain the best and the worst parts of their time as an expat, and find out what they wished they knew before they left the U.S.

Surround yourself with foreigners. The fastest way to master a culture and a language is to submerse yourself in it. If you came to this country as part of a group, it can be tempting to stick together, but that’s not why you signed up to study abroad, right? The more locals you know, the faster you will become comfortable in your new country.

Don’t be afraid to speak. If you’re learning a foreign language as part of your study abroad experience, the biggest obstacle you face is yourself. It can be embarrassing to make mistakes, but you can’t improve if you don’t try. Consider every time someone corrects you a learning experience, even if it comes along with a few chuckles.

Take advantage of what the school offers. For many expat college students, budget is a primary concern, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t explore the country. Often you’ll find that your college offers free activities with transportation provided. Check with professors, and keep an eye out for flyers and notices. But don’t stop there. Find out about free events in your area. It’s likely that local college students will be just as budget-minded, so hit them up for ideas. And look out for weekly publications with event listings in the back.

Carry your student ID – Many colleges, particularly in Europe, offer student IDs which allow students to experience a whole host of things for free or reduced prices, such as the Louvre, or a gondola ride on the Venice canals. It’s also good to keep around for safety reasons. At a loss for words? Your student ID can help point people in the right direction towards helping you get back to campus.

Know where your local embassy or consulate is located. If you run into trouble in a foreign country and need some help from your home turf, you want to head to a U.S. embassy or consulate. Before you go, visit and make note of the nearest location.

Buy a durable coin purse. As an American, you’re likely not used to carrying around much change since the largest coin commonly used is only a quarter, but in many other countries, coins are more valuable and more frequently used. For example, many public transportation systems only accept coins.

Recognize that homesickness will pass. It takes a lot of courage to leave your home country by yourself, and those moments where you panic about the decision are completely normal. You’ll be concerned that you’ll never pick up the language. You’ll miss your family. You’ll worry about getting lost. But these feelings only last a short time, and you will be happy that you stuck it out when you come home with so many new experiences and memories to share.

Patrick Del Rosario is part of the team behind Open Colleges. It is one of Australia’s pioneer and leading providers of Online Technical and Further Education Courses and distance education. When not working, Patrick enjoys blogging about career and business. Patrick is also a photography enthusiast and is currently running a photography studio in the Philippines. If you have a blog and would like free content, you can find him on Google+.

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