Are you studying abroad soon and looking for tips and stories so you can make the most of your time abroad? By habit, people often stay inside of 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 than that initial discomfort is having the blessing of traveling and studying abroad just to come home with regrets because you stuck to your comfort zone and didn't explore! Here are some tips to avoid that:
1. Research the culture before your study abroad trip.
Cultural immersion is about learning and understanding! Make sure to research before your experience abroad as it will get you better prepared to more fully embrace and experience your destination once you arrive.
Here are ideas to start:
Local food and traditional dishes
Try to find at least five popular dishes that you want to try. Research them, their history, and where you can find them while you are traveling. For some places, this is pretty simplistic.
🍛 Example. In Peru, finding a restaurant that serves ceviche or lomo saltado will be very easy. Studying abroad in South Africa? Searching for a spot that sells traditional Xhosa or Zulu food may be a bit harder.
Different ethnic groups in one country might also have different foods, so pay attention and diversify your diet!
Local music tastes and icons
Research popular genres, musicians, and music. Listen to the music people your age listen to. Use Spotify or Apple Music to find (or make) a playlist with local music.
Listen to it consistently before you travel even if you are not super fond of it—often enjoying music is like an acquired taste, so that way you’ll be able to enjoy it more once you are there. Research what concerts will be going on while you are there and attend!
Cultural norms and expectations
How should you dress? How can women act? What is considered rude, or respectful?
This is important because different things have different meanings in different cultures. You won’t want to be unintentionally, unknowingly disrespectful. And remember, this is your job to research this. You are visiting their home, so you adapt. Not the other way around.
Local history and current events
How has your study abroad country been affected by colonialism or neo-colonialism. If it’s a colonial country like England, the United States, or China, how have they benefited? How has the past brought them to where they are today?
It’s good to have some knowledge of these things because they will help you understand the context of the culture you're exploring.
Here are some questions to ask yourself: What historical and political events do you need to dive into to have more context for the current situation? What topics are sensitive and why? How have different cultures interacted in this country? In an ever-increasing globalized world, most countries are not culturally monolithic.
You’ll want to recognize where you are in relation to the city to have a greater context of the place. Maybe while you are researching you’ll find places you’d like to go explore—commit to doing this while you are there.
The more geography you know about the country and your region, the better overall understanding you will have. If you are studying abroad in a particular town or city study a map and learn about each neighborhood.
Local language and dialect
If you’re going to a place where you don’t know the language it will help create even bigger barriers to getting out of your comfort zone. The more you learn the language before you go the better.
If you don’t feel like you have the time, simply commit to learning a word a day or a few common phrases a week. You will thank yourself exponentially when you arrive.
Common phrases you should learn in the local language before your trip (originally shared in Solo Travel As A Woman: The Ultimate Guide (50+ Tips!))
- Can you repeat?
- Where is…
- I have a question…
- Do you speak English?
- I don't speak ____________.
- How much money is it?
- Do you take credit cards?
- Where is the bathroom?
- Table for one
- I'm allergic to ____________.
- Thank you
If you are traveling somewhere where English is the main language, but there are other tribal or indigenous languages common in the area, learn some basics in those languages. As English speakers we are accustomed to the world catering to us—do something different. It will help you connect with people once you’re there.
Find out where the locals go.
When looking online at what there is to do at your destination, you probably will find a list of touristy things to do—maybe shark cage diving, wine tasting, or visiting global tourist attractions. That’s great—take advantage of those, learn and have fun.
But tourist attractions don’t reflect the day-to-day life of local people.
If you want to experience a little more of local life, you will have to be more intentional. Look up events locals are going to! Are there monthly food truck festivals? Traditional dance clubs that tourists don’t know about? Are there local festivals and parades?
Search Facebook groups online from the city you’ll be visiting: search the city you’ll be in then scroll through the groups, depending on where you are searching, as you reach more towards the bottom you will pass the touristy pages and may find some interesting groups and events created by locals!
Search [insert city name] + hiking, food, food trucks, entertainment, music, festivals, concerts, parade, events, community, nightlife, dancing, church, mosque, temple, or any other culturally relevant information you come across from your research.
2. Get out of your study abroad bubble and connect with the locals.
The more input you get from locals, the more life-changing opportunities you’ll come across. Ask locals for recommendations at every opportunity you have: ask them places to visit, nightclubs to dance at, foods you need to try, any local festivals or events, hikes to go on, the city’s most beautiful views to see, etc.
…And then ask them to go with you!
Ask what they like to do in their city and things to do beyond the typical touristy experiences.
Of course, do your own work and research s you don't want to take advantage of people's kindness. But often, locals are very excited to share about their lands and culture and can give insight into experiences that you won’t find on the internet.
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 background, upbringing, or ways of life, you’ll find people you have a lot in common with.
3. How do you make real, meaningful connections if you're just there temporarily?
Making friends is the most effective way to have the best study abroad experience possible because you'll learn about and experience a new culture and language
Unfortunately, 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. That was my experience studying abroad in Dubai (which I did for free, by the way! here's how)
By default, I hung out with the other people who were like me: spoke English, understood my references, and had some shared experiences. But that's not the point of studying abroad! When I noticed my habit, I actively implemented these tips to make new friends:
Find locals who love travel, too.
Finding other people who can relate to your experience can be essential for forming quick connections! You can do that by finding locals who want to connect with travelers: look for the students in cultural exchange clubs, language clubs, or even students from other nationalities who are also studying abroad (like international students from Italy, Brazil, Japan, etc.).
You can also look online in:
- Facebook groups
- Slack channels
- Meet up groups
Need help breaking the ice? There are literally icebreaker card games to get ideas from!
Learn about them, first. You're in their home, after all.
The quickest way to connect with those from a different culture and experience their home region is to learn about them and their way of life! Find out what the locals you want to be friends with are interested in. Where do they hang out? What’s important to know about friendships in their culture?
For example: making friends while studying abroad in Dubai was much different from doing so in South Korea.
💡 Are you an international student (i.e. not American)? Skip to the section for study abroad scholarships for international high school students.
South Koreans are polite but very distant from new people, especially foreigners.
Whereas in Dubai, the local culture is initially a bit more closed off to outsiders but they were a lot more curious. To overcome this, I had to think up ideas on how to start conversations, and I definitely had to reach out first to establish friendships. But once I did, they were solid.
4 years later, I am still friends with most of those original incredible people I met in Dubai and have visited them now that I'm a digital nomad.
Be honest, and share your story too.
Developing a sense of community with a nomadic or traveling lifestyle is a unique problem, to be honest. Some cultures may be more or less accepting of outsiders, let alone a study abroad student who is only around temporarily.
Despite that: always be your true self.
The number one trait that invites community is authenticity and honesty! Share who you are, what you are looking for in friendships and share parts of you that only you can bring to a community. When you are your true self and are genuinely open to connections, the right people will find you no matter where you are or how long you stay.
4. Be intentional with each day.
Decide that you won't let one day go by without doing something new you couldn’t do at home—explore somewhere new in town, go on an adventure, go on a date, or spend time with local friends.
Make a study abroad bucket list and get on it from the beginning. I see so many people say “let’s do that someday!” but let their study abroad time pass them by without them noticing.
Activities that can truly help you have a cultural immersion during your study abroad:
- Celebrate a cultural holiday with a host family
- Go to a local festival or event
- Go to a cooking class and cook a traditional local dish
- Take a local language class
- Take a class in your curriculum that involves the local history or culture
- Join a language exchange club
5. Turn off your phone and be in the moment: studying abroad is a bucket list dream!
It may be nice to Facetime family from time to time or doom scroll through social media to see what your friends from back home are up to. But remember that this is your chance to experience this place like never again, to disconnect from your life back home and unplug!
Repeat after me: This time is limited. I am living the experience I used to dream about. All the things at home will be there when I get home. I am going to have a study abroad experience that I will joy talking about, forever!
6. Always remember to take care of yourself.
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 mentally, physically, and emotionally while abroad. Reach out to your support system if you find yourself struggling in school, struggling with loneliness, or anything else.
- online communities
- your study abroad coordinator
- your university’s mental health staff.
Make sure you are caring for yourself and being gentle and kind to yourself on your adventure.