I went to Brno, Czechia for two months and attended Masaryk University to partake in their 2019 Summer Lab Research Internship. I have compiled what I feel are the most important tips I learned from my whole study abroad experience. Pay special attention to the last one!
1. Try not to exchange currency at the airport if you can help it.
The exchange rates at the airport are usually terrible and you will most likely end up losing money if you exchange there. I would say the best option would be to contact your bank well before leaving for your host country to see if they have the currency you will need. If they don’t have it at the time you contact them, they may be able to order it (Chase does this). They will give you a much better rate.
Since we are on the topic of exchanging currency I would also like to add to be aware of scams! Sometimes people on the streets (usually near the city center) will try to “offer you a better rate” than the exchange places. Do not do it. They could possibly give you fake currency in exchange for your money. Also be sure to check the exchange rates on Oanda so you can compare it to the rates exchange places are offering (if you google Oanda currency conversion it will come up). The rates change pretty often so it’s good to stay on top of it.
2. Learn a little bit of the primary language spoken in your host country.
It's always good to know at least a couple basic conversational phrases of the language spoken in the country you are traveling to. The locals will be very appreciative, even if you can only say hello/thank you.
You don't have to master the language, just make an effort to try!
3. Bring pictures of your friends and family with you.
Going abroad for an extended period of time can make you feel a little homesick. Especially if the time difference affects how often you get to make phone calls home. Bringing photos of friends and family with you can help remedy that homesick feeling. Plus they make great room decorations!
4. Be observant of the people around you and learn from them.
Different cultures may operate differently than we do. Watching the locals around you and learning their ways may help you get around a little easier. It could be something as small as not smiling at strangers or not having small talk (I speak from experience, trust me) or allowing elderly/ pregnant people to sit in your seat on a tram if there are no other seats available. These were all things I had to pick up on during my time in my host country. Befriending a local is the best way to learn these kinds of things.
5. Keep an open mind.
After my time abroad, I found that it is best to keep an open mind in most situations. You are going to meet a lot of people from different parts of the world, and they might not all think or share the same opinions as you, but that is okay! This is all part of learning about cultures different from your own. And who knows, you might actually learn something from them or vice versa.
6. Go out and do/see as much as you can while you can.
While you are abroad, use this opportunity to its fullest extent! There will be so much to see and you most likely won’t be able to do it all, but at least you can say you tried. Surely you will have some free time on your hands, use it! While I was in Czechia, my roommates and I traveled every chance we could get and I don’t regret it one bit. Our program was Monday through Thursday so we had three-day weekends.
7. Don’t be afraid to try new things.
I know trying things that aren’t familiar to you can be a little scary, but at the end of the day, at least you can say you did it! Plus, this is a good way for you to really get in touch with other cultures and see things through their eyes. While my friends and I were in Budapest, we were told that we all had to try this drink called Unicum. Apparently it is a classic Hungarian liquor that is supposed to taste like black licorice. Sounds pretty good right? Definitely. Not. As soon as the first drop hit our mouths we all had the same expression of disgust on our faces. Even though, this is a case of where trying new things didn’t turn out so well, at least I got a good story out of it.
8. Try to go as soon as you can if you are looking to participate in long-term programs.
What I mean by this is try to go as early in your academic career as you can if you want to go abroad for a semester or a year. If you wait too long, then it may be harder to find the classes that you need to graduate. This is because as you move along in your academic career, your classes begin to get more major specific. For example, I am a biology major and during my first and second years, my classes were more general (GEs for example) so I had a lot of options as to what classes I could take abroad. But now that I have finished those more general classes and am moving into my major requirements, my classes have become more specific. It can be hard to find those more specific classes at universities abroad. However, just because you may be a third year or fourth year, this does not mean you shouldn’t try and see what classes abroad are out there! This was just my experience with trying to find classes that met my requirements to graduate.
9. Always be aware of your surroundings
This one kind of goes without saying. You should ALWAYS pay attention to where you are at and who is around you. You never know what could happen. One girl I met from Hong Kong decided to go to Germany for a weekend and she ended up getting her purse cut from her arm by a stranger. It all happened before she could even realize it was gone. I also had a little mishap while I was abroad. One night my friends and I went out and somehow someone stole my phone out of my bag. I was only two weeks into my program, so I had to go the remaining six weeks without a working phone. So make sure to watch your things/your surroundings.
10. APPLY FOR SCHOLARSHIPS.
This is one that I cannot stress enough. I saved this for last because I am hoping that if anything sticks in your memory, it will be this. If you are on the fence about going abroad due to financial reasons, then I absolutely recommend applying for as many scholarships as you can. Even if you think you aren’t going to get them, do it anyway because if you do end up getting them, you will be glad you applied in the first place. When I was applying to go abroad, money was an issue. If I couldn’t come up with the funds, then I wasn’t going to be able to go. Thankfully, I was told about the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship. Of all the scholarships out there, this is the one I recommend everyone applies for. I was one of those people who thought I wasn’t going to get any scholarships, but I applied anyway because the truth is, you never know. Shortly after applying I was informed that I had received the scholarship meaning I was going to be able to go abroad. Without this scholarship I would have missed out on such a life-changing experience. So please, APPLY, APPLY, APPLY.