1. Open your mind.
First and foremost, your semester will be defined by your attitude. The sooner you dismiss the comfortable notion that you know everything, the easier your transition will be. Be excited by the fact that you don’t know anything about the city you’re in – that’s the point! You are there to challenge your preconceived notions of the way things ‘have to be’. However, it is entirely possible, and often easier and more comfortable, to isolate yourself from the culture around you. Your challenge is to immerse yourself instead.
The first step to throwing yourself into a city is to learn about it. Do your research; buy a map. Learn the names of the different neighborhoods, and what they’re known for. After you’ve acquainted yourself with the basics, make a master list of what you want to accomplish. Make sure to include both things you’ve never done before and things you’d never thought to try. Mine included classes, such as one for traditional Spanish cooking; experiences, such as going to a protest and a flamenco show; and goals, like “one museum exhibit per week,” or “explore every district of Madrid.” Invest in a guidebook for walks of your city and take afternoon strolls with a friend. Don’t know anyone? Throw on a set of headphones and you’ll fit right in.
The most important advice I can give you: it is your job to be proactive. Abroad programs are not structured to hold your hand. If you want to grow as a person and enjoy your time abroad in a meaningful way, engage with the community you’re in. So the question remains: how? Join a recreational sports team at a local gym. Find a cause and volunteer. Participate in a religious youth group. Search out local jazz bars and soak up the noise. Instead of doing homework in your room, try a different café every week. Pick up local newspapers – there are always listings of museum exhibits, concerts, films, and so many other events, many of which are free or offer student discounts. Also, check out online resources – there are dozens of great websites and apps for exploring cities! If you have a hobby you already love, find a way to adapt it to your new environment. For example, my hobby was analogue (film) photography. A company called Lomography sells a wide variety of cameras and film, and I had been ordering online from them for a while, since they didn’t have a store in Dallas. Luckily for me, Madrid happened to have two Lomography locations. I tested out my Spanish by asking questions at the stores, getting my film developed and going on the photography tours of Madrid that they offered each month. On these tours, I made Spanish friends and explored parts of the city that were off the map. These were some of my favorite experiences abroad.
4. Take note.
Write about your experiences in a blog, an old-fashioned diary, or a combination of both. However, I encourage you to have some form of private reflection. While it’s great to put photos up online and let everyone live vicariously through your adventures, spending hours a day (even for one day) on social media is a waste of opportunity, and for the most part discourages you from really reflecting. Facebook and Instagram are the twin homes of the humble brag, and while you will have a lot to brag about, being abroad is about more than your friends clicking ‘like’ on your Valencia-filtered snapshot. Living abroad will and should challenge you through loneliness, homesickness, and culture shock. Keeping a journal will help you learn from, rather than suffer through, these challenges. Don’t ignore your difficult days – those are what you’re there for. You will return a more confident, worldly and mature person if you learn how to overcome these challenges.
5. Bring it back.
At some point, you will have to come home. Most students feel mixed emotions about returning – the sigh of relief at the restoration of the familiar, and yet the oddly strong nostalgia for a chapter of life that had just begun. The lesson here: bring your abroad attitude home. Why not treat your hometown or the city where you go to school like your favorite city abroad? The attitude I adopted while in Madrid gave me a whole new perspective on Dallas, a city in which I’ve lived my whole life. Realize that no matter where you are, there is always something to explore; fall in love with learning. Once you ignite that desire, you’ll realize that you don’t have to be far away to experience something new.