3 Steps to Become the Best Version of Yourself on Study Abroad
Because there is more to study abroad than Australian cuties… almost.
Study abroad does not have to just be about discovering red wine, rendezvousing with cute boys with Australian accents, and gaining ‘likes’ on your Facebook album. Not to say that these areas are not important but the opportunities for growth while studying abroad beyond these are endless. Become the best you abroad.
Step 1: Learn about your surroundings.
To some of you this may seem like a no-brainer, but actually read that informational book someone gave you before you leave. This time last year, I was studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. I honestly did not know what to expect. My dad had given me a book about the country when he heard I was going. I dog-eared a bunch of places I wanted to go, and read a general history of the country. Think of it as catching up on your favorite TV show. Would you watch the season premiere if you hadn’t watched last year’s finale? I didn’t think so. So how can you expect to drop in without knowing who the current drama queen of the country is?
Don’t be the person who doesn’t know the country’s capital, or the friend who leaves a tip when it’s not socially acceptable. If you can Facebook stalk someone, you can Google a country. This destination is going to be your home for a while, and it may even steal your heart. Learn the essentials in the native language. It is the polite thing to do, and it can be the saving grace in certain situations. Bargaining with vendors in markets might go a lot smoother if you know the gist of what they’re saying. If you don’t want to pay for tours then grab a book and some friends and get walking. A little initiative can help your funds last. And if all of these reasons to learn about your surroundings aren’t enough, it gives you something to talk about with your grandmother besides the “sick clubs”.
Step 2: Befriend locals.
Nobody does it better than the locals. Let them show you the ropes. They know where to go, what to do, what’s safe, and help steer you away from touristy rip-offs. The program I was a part of in Cape Town gave me a heads start on befriending locals since our group was paired with local students. They were from Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and were so excited to take us under their wing.
Learn about the culture from locals. You can’t really learn that kind of stuff from guidebooks and classrooms. The CPUT girls taught me how to tie a scarf around my head like I had seen them wear throughout the month. I learned what type of music, food, and clothing they liked. They were bewildered with our American obsession with vegetables at meals and asked if American college parties were like the ones in American Pie. By befriending locals, you not only learn more about the city and country you are living in, but you make a connection with the place beyond your stay. The girls told me about their relationships and individual expectations from men. They explained how these might differ from generalizations of societal expectations.
Conversations with locals take you into areas that guidebooks do not cover. Our new friends took us to Mzoli’s, a local and favorite restaurant in a close township outside of the city. I use the term ‘restaurant’ loosely; it is more of an outdoor tent with tons of tables under it. Mzoli’s cooks your selected meats in a mass quantity and brings pap with it. Pap is a staple for native cuisine; it is like ground maize, kind of like a softer grits. Everyone sits in large groups and brings alcohol with them. There is a DJ and everyone sings and dances with strangers from neighboring tables.
Step 3: Become a participant not just a spectator.
This is the biggest mistake you can make. Studying abroad is an amazing opportunity however you cut it, but become a part of your surroundings. Don’t just befriend the locals, become one. Make a list of places you want to go and things you can’t miss out on. Compile a mix of recommendations from friends, books, and online. Develop a favorite place to go and form a relationship with the people there. Do something authentic to the area. Try food you have never heard of.
One of my most vivid memories is of a dance performance. I noticed many differences in the behavior of the audience than what I was accustomed to experiencing. Every performance I have attended in the United States has typically been quiet on the audience’s side, but in South Africa, it seems to be more of an involved experience. The audience would shout remarks or make jokes while the performers were on stage. Women would ululate during exciting points in the pieces. (Do not worry; I did not know what ululate meant either.) I tried to picture the reactions people would have if a woman in America began to make those high pitch loud noises during a performance. I enjoyed the more involved experience. We were experiencing something with everyone else in the room, not just serving as mute spectators. Hearing the music and watching the dancers perform made me realize how lucky I was to be experiencing such a rich and deep culture in Cape Town. I wanted to remember the intense energy of their community that filled the theater. I wanted to remember what ululation sounds like in a quiet room. I wanted to remember the familiarity I found in a culture so different from my own experiences. Embrace your role as an individual in a world full of opportunity to participate.