Tips and Lessons from my Semester Abroad
These were some of the questions I got asked after my first exchange semester in Vienna, Austria. Feeling nostalgic and itching to be back in Europe, I decided to do another exchange semester in Stockholm!! So, two exchanges and many many countries later… here are my answers to those questions.
What culture shock did you experience? How did you deal with it?
Money and currency exchange - I had to get use to different currencies and exchanging money while still keeping track of my budget. In Austria, I had to get use to carrying more cash with me as many places don’t accept card. While in Stockholm, I never once held Swedish money in my hand and used my card for everything. If you are interested in saving money on foreign currency transfers, you can read my more extensive article here: Managing Foreign Currencies
Public transport - every country is different and has a different system. Some are punctual and easy to navigate, even in foreign languages - while others may have a very complicated and inefficient public transport system. Best tip is to download the local public transport app, which give you real life updates.
Language barrier - you can’t help but feel out of your comfort zone when surrounded by a foreign language you cannot even comprehend. In some countries, the locals don’t speak much English so I usually download the local language on Google Translate so I can always communicate if I need, or use it to translate signs and phrases. If you are going to be spending a few months or more in that country, it might be worth learning the language so you can communicate more with the people around you.
Food Culture - it goes without saying that you leave behind your normal food routine for a supermarket full of overwhelming new words where sour cream can easily be mistaken for yogurt. Do some quick research beforehand or ask some locals to help you bullet point the items you need so you don’t waste time scratching your head down every aisle.
No one is open on Sunday - biggest culture shock is that no one is open on Sundays except cafes and restaurants. I always forget this and usually end up starving on Sundays because I forget to buy groceries on Saturday (usually because I was busy travelling). So set yourself a reminder to buy groceries either on the Friday or Saturday!
What are some of your tips for those about to go on exchange?
Say yes to everything - but within reason of course. You only get this experience once in your life, so if you have a free weekend and someone spontaneously asks if you want to join their trip to wherever… say yes!! It’s always the spontaneous trips with zero expectations that happen to be the best ones!
Stay open minded to all things. Try to understand how and why people do things and say things differently or have different views/perspectives on life - your view and your perspective is just one of many.
Learn the language - even the basics go a long way and locals really appreciate it. I wrote a more detail article about this topic here: 10 Ways to Learn a Language on a Budget
Don't be scared to travel alone, especially as a female. I did more than half my travelling solo and found it to be more efficient, flexible and cheaper. I’ve written a more extensive article about Solo Travelling vs Travelling with Friends - here.
Write a diary or have some way of documenting your experience. This is one of the best things I did on exchange and I’m so glad I reminded myself to write regularly. It’s so nice to look back and recall the beautiful memories and people from my exchange semesters.
How did this exchange help you grow as a person?
I learnt so much in my first semester abroad and many of those things were the intangible lessons like: how to get yourself out of a sticky situation; how to navigate through a country that speaks very minimal English; how to travel alone as a solo female while staying safe and alert; how to integrate yourself into another culture; how to be generous with the small things; how to make the most of your day; and so much more. It’s so hard to explain these intangible things, but there’s something about travelling and experiencing other cultures that humbles you and you don’t realise how much you’ve grown and changed as a person until you get back - that’s when it hits you.
I’ve become a lot more confident in myself - especially with public speaking, which I was never good at. Perhaps it’s the constant problem solving that comes with travelling and having to back yourself when travelling solo.
You realise how much you can fit into your day or your weekend. When you’re abroad, you want to make the most of every day - even on Uni days. This is something I brought back with me and still try to adhere to.
I’d never travelled so much, nor been so broke … but I’d never been so happy. You realise that happiness is shared with like minded people, it’s found in the little things, in moments, in actions, words and energy rather than in the materialistic things.
I definitely learned to be a lot more open minded - to everything. You realise that the way you do things is neither right nor wrong, it’s just different.
Did you experience Reverse Culture Shock? How did you deal with it?
You miss that sense of excitement in your life of going somewhere new and exotic, being surrounded by new language, culture, food and people. Europe had somehow become my second home and when I arrived back in NZ, I felt my heart was being torn in two. Tip: I dealt with this by exploring my own country. I realise there was still so much I hadn’t seen in my backyard!
You come back to the same way of life and it's like nothing has changed. Like no time has passed and you start to feel nostalgic and sad. People can only stand listening to your stories so much and you don't really want to boast about your amazing time abroad. You miss the friends you made on exchange, the people back home don't understand the new you and think that this change is just a ‘phase’. Coming home can feel a bit isolating. Tip: Look for other exchange students at your home university! Find a flat with incoming exchange students to keep in touch with that sense of multi-culture variety. They are usually so eager to explore and it’s really exciting to see your own country through someone else’s eyes.
Further tips: Continue to live by those life lessons you learnt overseas and maybe - consider doing another exchange? :)
If you are about to embark on your first exchange semester abroad and still have some questions for me or if you have already been on an exchange and have some extra tips to add - comment down below! I look forward to reading and replying!