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For all future ‘abroad-ers’

| Tuesday, February 5, 2019

“Abroad changes you.” “I’m definitely more sophisticated now.” Probably every non-abroad student is tired of hearing this from their friends coming from Rome, London, Dublin, Australia or wherever they went to get ‘cultured.’ I guess I could fit into that category as well. I am sure I went home suddenly feeling Italian and correcting my parents when they say ‘bruschetta’ wrong. However, even though I heard epic stories from people coming back from abroad, I still want to share a few lessons I learned, mostly the hard way, for all the future ‘abroad-ers’:

    1. Budget and plan. This first advice might seem logical, and most people already have the intention of having a budget and go from there. However, once you get there you will want to try — in my case — every corner gelato, every type of pasta and pizza, buy a souvenir everywhere, and just like that two weeks into the program my budget turned into simply one more file to clutter my computer. Remember, you will have plenty of time to explore food and cultures and it is better to save up for trips than spend everything on local food all at once.  
    2. Try to take different routes while walking home — and walk as much as possible. Living in Rome, we didn’t have much choice other than using our feet as our main transportation since local buses was not very reliable. At first, I chose the same 40 minute route to class every day to avoid getting lost, but after a while I began exploring new routes, and even though I did end up lost a few times, it was the best way to actually get to know the city.    
    3. Talk to strangers. You probably always heard otherwise from your parents, but in my experience, conversations with random people usually became a learning experience about different culture and tips on where to go and not go. These talks may just end with you getting a free paella and two burritos in Madrid, you never know.
    4. Plan a solo trip. Personally, I rarely enjoy being alone. Sure, a little privacy once in a while is nice but I did not think I could go half a day without company. This is why I never thought of going on a trip by myself, even though I knew most people in my program had done it. However, after the semester ended I (sort of accidentally) booked my flight three days after everyone left. Even though I was very mad at myself at first, I took the opportunity to cross one more item off my bucket list and went backpacking through Venice and Milan by myself. I can honestly say I have no regrets.
    5. Learn as much as possible. Go to museums, read about the culture, if you are in a non-English speaking country, try to speak the local language as much as possible — engage in conversations and do not order food in English even if you sound ridiculous. It is not only the best way to learn, but the closest you will get to actually getting immersed in the culture.
    6. Take a little piece of home. I am not the homesick type, and even though I technically study abroad already here at Notre Dame, it was until I was in a time zone six hours ahead of my family that the homesickness finally caught up to me — especially when it comes to the food. By mid-semester, I was already tired of pasta and craving some black beans with tortilla and Queso Petacon instead. Sure, you will try new and amazing dishes over there, but nothing beats home-made food, so taking any reminder from home definitely helps.
    7. Say yes. Get out of your comfort zone. I cannot emphasize this enough; living in a completely different culture is already a step out of your comfort bubble, but it is not enough—take the opportunity to take risks. Say yes to babysitting two little Italian twins with almost no understanding of English for example. Buy a last minute 16-hour bus ride to Munich. Fly to Budapest even though you could technically be deported for traveling outside of a Schengen Area without a permit to stay. You may end up with momentary regrets but I assure you they will make the best stories.

Even though I am aware I did not come back being a wine connoisseur or fluent in Italian, I would not trade any of the good, bad and unexpected experiences I came back with.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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