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Real or Virtual Study Abroad?

How to Strike a Balance Between Local Immersion and Staying Connected Back Home

Whether it’s your first or hundredth time abroad, the question of immersion applies to everybody. Sure, letting go of your “old” home and immersing yourself in the local culture certainly becomes easier the more time you spend abroad. Nevertheless, the way in which you stay in touch with people will undoubtedly shape your experience. With emails, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, it is easier than ever to maintain contact. But it is just as easy to spend hours glued to a computer screen and let the local life pass unnoticed. Here are some tips on striking a healthy balance.

First Time Abroad

You signed up for a semester in Paris but you’ve never even been to Europe? No need to panic. It is common for many students to elect to study abroad in a completely foreign city, country, or if not, continent. How easily a student adapts to different ways of life certainly varies, and will depend both on the student and the surrounding environment; two years with the Peace Corps in southern Africa is not the same as a 2-week summer course in Italy. Regardless, it is never wrong to prepare yourself beforehand for the inevitable culture shock.

Before You Go

In addition to the mandatory formalities, such as getting a visa or registering for classes, it is advisable to spend some time thinking about and preparing for your upcoming time abroad. Many schools offer orientation seminars while still at the home university campus. Sometimes, these discussions include presentations from students who have already returned from their study experience abroad. If this is not the case, feel entitled to ask at your Study Abroad office about returned students. Their advice, although it may not always apply to your specific case or program, can be very helpful. Listen carefully, and ask questions; the majority of students will even be willing to respond to additional inquiries by email (this is especially helpful if the student is still abroad and you want up-to-date information).

Also, don’t underestimate the knowledge offered by your Study Abroad Advisors; they were hired because they have spent time abroad, and most likely can answer your most pertinent doubts. And do read the pre-departure information and handbooks they provide you. For example, figuring out how you will manage your money before you go will cause fewer problems while abroad. On the whole, handling as many logistical details as possible beforehand will leave you more time to really enjoy your time abroad.

Finally, if you are a first-timer abroad, depending upon how attached you are to your life back home, you may want to select a shorter-term study abroad program. Why not try a summer in a foreign city instead of a whole academic year on another continent? Look into the options at your school early and you are more likely to find a program that will work best for you. And who knows, you might become a repeat visitor to a given city or country if you like it very much.

Sink or Swim?

Particularly with respect to learning languages, it is common for people to adopt the “sink or swim” approach. My own parents believed in it, throwing me into an international school in Germany at age seven; I didn’t know a word of English and yes, it was not easy at first, but in the end I would not have learned the language as well otherwise. The same happened again to me with Spanish at age eight and French at age ten. Now I am convinced that the most productive way to learn a language is to surround oneself by people who speak it. (Sounds obvious, but I have met countless travelers who still don’t speak a word of Spanish after four months in South America by surrounding themselves with English-speaking friends or classmates…).

In this day and age, there are countless programs that optimize your exposure to local languages and cultures. Home stays can be invaluable, as can living with local students. Choosing to study at a local university instead of an American campus abroad will also undoubtedly help you immerse yourself (although it is very important to note that most universities require more advanced language skills, while a home stay, for example, is almost always open to all).

Again, looking into the different options beforehand will help. Figure out how intensive the programs are, and then ask yourself whether signing a Language Pledge, such as at Middlebury College, is what you want. Then, once you are abroad, you can still decide to go that extra step and sign up for those tango classes with a local expert. In the end, it is up to you to whether you wish to take the plunge and immerse yourself abroad or choose a course of action which might offer a bit more of the security you might understandably need in more dissimilar surroundings.

Technology as the Holding Hand

While it is certainly not the point of going abroad to spend every minute flipping through Facebook pictures, modern technology can be used effectively. If it is your first time abroad, Facebook, email and other Internet resources may help in the initial stages. Keeping in touch with family and friends back home can help you ease into the experience abroad. Moreover, worried parents at the other end of the globe will know from your blog that you are still alive and well!

But be careful, seeing pictures of your previous life can also make you homesick. Thus, based upon my experience, it is advisable to restrict the time you spend online; if it is hard for you, set a weekly time limit. You may even consider writing a handwritten journal instead of a blog. Handwritten journals are often more personal and reflective. In addition, journals can be written while atop the Patagonian mountains, where Internet access might be an impossible dream.

Regardless of your decision, in order to overcome homesickness it is best to enjoy yourself abroad. While this may sound easier said than done, here are a few general practical tips to get to know the local culture:

  • Attend the welcome events at your local university
  • Read the newsletters your study abroad advisor sends out by email
  • Look out for flyers and announcements in and outside classrooms
  • Ask teachers and advisors personally for help in pursuing a hobby
  • Join a student club or organization
  • Start playing a new sport
  • Take a cooking course and learn about the local cuisine
  • Check out local newspapers for event listings
  • Above all, try something new!

If you approach your new home in another land with an open mind, you are bound to meet local people. Of course, once you have met them, you can connect with them via Facebook and other online portals as well. My advice is simply to maintain a balance and not to allow the virtual to overtake the real experience.

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