Thinking of studying abroad? The Four Components

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent weeks wondering how exactly I would describe a “study abroad.”  Now that I carry almost 3 months in Barcelona, it doesn’t strike me to walk past Gaudi’s famous Casa Batlló every morning after getting out of the metro.  I’m no barcelone, but neither do I feel like a tourist anymore.  I’m a foreigner, but Barcelona is a house that is becoming a home.  So WTF is this study abroad business!?!?

A study abroad is no vacation.  Before you depart kind and thoughtful wellwishers bid you safe travels and a happy adventure reflecting on previous trips they may have taken.  They tell you “You’ll have the adventure of a lifetime!”  But a study abroad is more a trip than a vacation, and can sometimes be more a challenge than a pleasure.  Rather, a study abroad is what it says: [1] you study [2] abroad.  Study isn’t limited limited to academics.  Instead there are four aspects:

  1. Language-study
  2. Cultural-study
  3. Self-study
  4. Academic-study

1.) Language Study

When you’re studying abroad, you can’t help but study the language.  Even if you’ve never taken a Spanish, Catalán, French, Italian, Russian or whatever it may be language class before, you will be immersed in the language.

Personally I’ve tried several techniques for the language study.  I chose to live with a family the first semester so I would be surrounded by the language, meet with intercambios or language exchange partners several times a week, I deleted the American music from my iPod and replaced with the few Spanish-language albums I have, I try to read the newspaper once a week, and study the dictionary.  When you decide to study a language abroad, I’d suggest you try every technique you can think of and strongly commit to the ones that work for you.

2.) Cultural Study

This is one of the most rewarding but most frustrating aspects of a study abroad.  Culture shock is real.  Within your first two months abroad, you will go through a rollercoaster of excitement, intimidation, depression/abandonment, coping methods, and ultimately acceptance and embracement.  In Spain, the siesta is a typical cultural shock.  If you’re trying to get something done in Spain between 2:00 and 4:00 PM, you’re better off not even trying.

Living with a family has been another huge cultural study, which also meant a bigger cultural shock.  Most difficult was understanding the emotion of a Spanish family.  Initially I thought they argued a lot, but after I was able to understand them more I realized that they are just emotional; their culture is emotional.  If something annoys you, you yell and curse. Accepting that Spanish familial relationships involved more emotion enabled me to enjoy the experience more easily.

3.) Self Study

Putting yourself in a new time and space teaches you a lot about yourself.  A new country is a new social, spatial and temporal reality.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned so far is the importance of slowing down.  As an American, I’m accustomed to our conception of time: fast.  So when I arrived in Barcelona I was doing everything so quickly that I missed out on a lot!  But when I began slowing down I enjoyed things more.  It’s funny, but walking has become one of my favorite things since I “slowed down.”  By walking instead of trotting, I started appreciating Barcelona more and more and more!

4.) Academic Study

Fortunately and unfortunately academics are included.  You’re going to be taking classes, and you’re going to get a grade.  But its important to remember that a study abroad isn’t just academics.  Take your classes seriously, but try to incorporate what you’re learning in class outside of class, and you’ll get a lot more out of your experience! 

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