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People often stick so close to their comfort zones that even while traveling the world they don’t stray from familiar foods or attempt to connect with people who live or look differently from them.

You may find it hard to spark friendships with locals and step into what you are unfamiliar with at first. But worse is having the privilege of traveling and having regret when you come home because you didn’t venture into the unknown.

Research the culture before you go

Cultural immersion is about learning and understanding! Make sure to do research before you travel on food, music, dance, cultural norms, history, language, geography, current events, and what locals like to do for fun!

Doing this learning will get you better prepared to more fully embrace and experience your destination once you arrive. You will misinterpret and miss a lot if you don’t have context behind what you are observing and experiencing.

You will misinterpret and miss a lot if you don’t have context behind what you are observing and experiencing. Click To Tweet

You can find 7 more tips on how to have the best travel experience in this article or this TikTok.

Ask questions & connect with locals

The more input you get from locals, the more cool opportunities you’ll come across. I asked locals what I should have on every type of bucket list—places to visit, night clubs to dance at, food to try, festivals and events, hikes to go on, the city’s most beautiful views to see, etc.

Ask what they like to do in their city and things to do beyond the typical touristy experiences. Do your own work and research, but often real people can give insight into experiences that you won’t find on the internet.

Asking locals about events lead me to meet the Cultural Consciousness Society: a group of youth who educate local children on literacy, Black excellence worldwide, and to be proud of their culture and who they are. Zwide, South Africa

Make friends & spend time with them

Making meaningful connections with people is the most beautiful part of traveling the world. There are really great people all across the world who you never knew existed!

Despite your differences in the background in upbringing, you’ll find people you have a lot in common with! Making friends is the most effective way to learn about and experience a new culture and language.

There are so many things you will not pick up on if the people you hang out with are from back home, be intentional about spending time with them. Do you have a choice of going out for drinks with your friends from back home or visiting the local friend you just met?

If you want to have more immersion experiences, choose the latter. Experiencing culture is interacting with people—there is only so much learning that can be done in a classroom, reading a book, or by observing from afar with people similar to you. This is the most important one, so don’t overlook it.

My friend Francesco giving me a tour of Rome.
“La Chamakada”: The nickname we gave to our friend group; Manzanillo, Mexico

Having trouble making friends in a foreign country?

People have different levels of comfort with approaching strangers, making new friends, and surrounding themselves with people of different backgrounds.

Many study abroad programs are set up in a way in which study abroad students could go the whole semester without making a significant connection or friendship with a local person. 

It will take some effort on your part. Stay tuned for the next article in this three-part series for tips on making this experience easier.

My first experience watching rugby was at Nelson Mandela University
My friend Siphokazi & I

Be intentional each day

When I studied abroad, I decided that I would not let one day go by without doing something that I couldn’t do at home, whether that be exploring somewhere in the city, learning to surf (Make sure you have an experienced instructor!), or spending time with local friends.

Out of four months, I only missed about two days! Now, you don’t have to be as extreme as I was but do be intentional about the time you spend.

Make a to-do list and get on it from the beginning. I saw so many people say “yeah, let’s do that someday” but with a month left in our semester, realized that they had barely done any of it.

 When I studied abroad, I decided that I would not let one day go by without doing something that I couldn’t do at home Click To Tweet

Get out of your comfort zone

Do you find yourself getting nervous about meeting new people, especially in a place that is unfamiliar to you? Keep pushing yourself out of your comfort zone (I’m not talking about being unsafe—that’s a different thing).

Go to those community-led events. Do you feel awkward when everyone around you is speaking a language you can’t understand? Instead of escaping and going to your friends from back home, stay, and actively seek out those situations because learning experiences will come.

Ecuador, age 10. Instead of going touristy, my dad and I chose to check out local markets.

Get involved in the community

Join a club or city group where you will be interacting with locals! Your local university probably has student groups—join one, or multiple. Then be intentional while you are there to make connections with the other students present.

Turn off your phone and be in the moment.

It may be nice to Facetime family from time to time or search through social media to see what your friends from back home are up to. But remember that this is your one chance to experience this place like never again, to disconnect from your life back home and unplug.

Every minute spent on your phone is a minute lost from experiencing the place you are in.

A plus of having friends & step-family all around the world is getting to see the city from the eyes of a local. Montserrat, Barcelona, Spain.
At the Radisson Blu in Port Elizabeth, South Africa

Take care of yourself & process if you need to

Make sure you are caring for yourself mentally, physically, and emotionally while abroad. Reach out for help if you need it.

Contact your director or your university’s mental health staff. Some people experience homesickness or struggle with mental health while in a whole new environment away from home.

Make sure you are caring for yourself and being gentle and kind to you.

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