Studying abroad provides a unique opportunity for cultural immersion. However, what you take away from your year or semester abroad will largely depend on you.
At Remitly, we strongly believe in the benefits of engaging with different cultures, and we put together this guide to help you gain the most cultural experience possible while participating in a study abroad program.
Importance of cultural experiences while studying abroad
Study abroad programs can help you achieve your academic goals, but the study abroad experience is about more than just taking classes in other countries. Experiencing the cultural immersion of temporarily living in a new country is an integral part of studying abroad.
While you study at a foreign university, you’re not just gaining academic knowledge. Making discoveries about the local culture is every bit as important as learning a new language or mastering the material covered in your courses.
Key benefits of new cultural experiences
The unique cultural experiences that come with participating in study abroad programs offer many benefits for students. Some benefits of learning about new cultures include:
Gaining new perspectives
Seeing how other people live during your time in a study abroad program can change how you see the world. You can come away from your time in a different country with a new appreciation for the planet’s diversity.
Opportunity for personal growth
No matter what country you choose to study in, you’ll likely encounter unexpected obstacles that you’ll need to work to overcome, as well experiences that take you out of your comfort zone.
Rising to the occasion and meeting these challenges can help you grow as a person and positively impact you as you move forward with your career and everyday life back home.
Chance to make new friends
Studying abroad provides a unique chance to build a global network of friends and acquaintances. By immersing yourself in the culture, you can meet people you otherwise wouldn’t.
Plus, studying abroad also means meeting international students from many countries, exposing you to new cultures beyond those of your host country.
Real-world language immersion
While you may have already studied one or more of your host country’s official languages, living among native speakers allows you to dig deeper.
You’ll learn what words people actually use for conversation. For example, in South Korea, people rarely use the word for “you” when speaking to someone because it’s considered rude, but you will find the word in poetry and songs.
Expanded career opportunities
Understanding the culture of a place may make you uniquely qualified for jobs in the future.
For example, if you become familiar with Japanese culture, you might have an advantage over other applicants for a position that involves interacting with customers or suppliers located in Japan.
Cultural experiences to have while studying abroad
Ultimately, whether you have unique experiences with the local culture will depend on you. If you spend all of your time away from school with other students from your home country, you may miss out.
Students who want to make the most of their time studying at foreign universities can follow these tips to make the most of their time:
Language exchanges with locals
Learning foreign languages is often a goal of students entering study abroad programs. In fact, many students study abroad to fulfill their universities’ language requirements. One way to build your vocabulary and master grammar is to speak regularly with a local person through a language exchange.
Wherever in the world you intend to study, there’s a good chance that there are people there who want to learn your native language as much as you want to become fluent in theirs. With a language exchange, you meet regularly with a native speaker and converse in both languages. You can ask each other questions and give one another tips to make your speech more natural.
As you both work together to become more capable speakers of foreign languages, you can also cultivate a relationship. You may walk away from your time with a new friend you’ll be eager to visit on your next trip to your study abroad destination.
Participating in cultural festivals and events
Whether you study in a major city, a small town, or a more rural area, there will likely be holiday celebrations, festivals, and other community events that take place while you participate in a study abroad program. Attending these events is a great way to learn more about culture.
To have the best experience possible, learn about the event beforehand. Find out what you should wear, what you need to bring, and how to respectfully participate in the festivities.
Visiting museums, art galleries, and historical sites
Take advantage of cultural attractions in the city or town where your study abroad program is based.
Go to museums to learn about the history of the area. Visit art galleries to see how artists from the country express themselves. Sign up for a walking tour of the city or town to learn about its history and architecture.
Check out whether there is a World Heritage Site located in the area and make plans to see it. UNESCO has a searchable map to make finding sites simple.
Trying local cuisine and learning to cook traditional dishes
Food plays a significant role in understanding a country’s heritage and traditions. Learning how to prepare traditional dishes can be a rewarding experience. If you’re living with a host family, consider asking if you can assist in the kitchen and learn their favorite recipes.
Additionally, many study abroad programs offer cooking classes where you can learn to cook local dishes alongside fellow international students.
When you’re in a foreign country, it’s worth being open to trying new dishes that may be unfamiliar to you.
For instance, in Kyrgyzstan, mutton and horse meat are commonly consumed as they have historical ties to the nomadic way of life that prevailed in the region. In Andean countries like Peru and Bolivia, guinea pigs are traditionally raised to be eaten. In island nations like Japan, you’ll encounter all kinds of seafood, from eel to urchin.
By embracing local flavors and culinary traditions, you can enhance your study abroad adventure and gain a greater appreciation for the culture and people of the country you’re visiting.
Traveling throughout the country and beyond
Even in small countries like Costa Rica, customs and traditions can vary greatly from the mountains to the sea. Regional differences abound. Traveling outside the city or town where your university can allow you to truly get to know your host country.
If you have a valid passport and your student visa allows it, consider visiting neighboring countries during your time abroad. This way, you can experience other cultures in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and other parts of the world.
Joining local clubs and organizations
Whatever your interests are, look for opportunities to pursue them while studying abroad.
Joining related clubs and organizations is a great way to meet people while studying in another country. You may find it easier to connect and form friendships because you’ll have something in common with the other members.
The clubs and organizations at the international university where you intend to take classes are a good starting point for finding organizations to join. You can also search social media and search engines to find other opportunities.
Volunteering abroad is a great way to experience the culture of another country. Not only will you feel good knowing you have helped someone else, but you will also have a chance to meet people beyond the students at your school.
If you’re participating in a study abroad program through your home university or one of the many third-party providers that specialize in studying abroad, there may already be volunteer opportunities lined up that you can be a part of.
Students who opt for direct enrollment at a foreign school can look for volunteer work through international organizations like the Red Cross.
Tips for adjusting to life while studying abroad
Adjusting to life in another country is rewarding, but not always easy. The good news is that there are things you can do to make the cultural adjustment easier while participating in study abroad programs.
The following tips can help make the transition to living in your host country simpler:
Research before you go
Having some idea of what to expect from life in another country can help you feel more at ease. Read about local customs and traditions before you depart for your study abroad program. Search for answers to commonly asked questions about cultural differences between your home country and the one you intend to visit.
Talking to a local person ahead of time can be beneficial. Get in touch with your host family before you travel or use social media to meet people from the area.
Brace yourself for culture shock
No matter how much you know about global culture, you’ll likely experience at least a small amount of culture shock.
Accepting that life will be different while participating in your study abroad program may ease the adjustment process. Understand that you may end up in awkward situations from time to time.
Be ready to make mistakes when you first arrive. Apologize when you accidentally offend someone and then move forward. Letting things go will allow you to continue to be open to experiencing new things during your time abroad.
Be prepared for homesickness
Homesickness is a real thing that many students who study abroad experience. One of the best ways to overcome the feelings of loneliness and isolation that come from being in an unfamiliar place is to get out and meet people.
Check out our article on dealing with homesickness for more tips on how to cope.
If you’re struggling to adjust while studying abroad, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Reach out to other international students who are going through the same thing. Talk to your host family about your feelings and seek their advice on how to navigate cultural traditions better. Take advantage of mental health resources and support groups offered by your host university or nonprofits in the area.
When participating in study abroad programs, you can stay inside your comfort zone and focus on attending university classes, or you can put yourself out there and fully immerse yourself in the culture. The latter option can really pay off both now and in the future.
Start researching the language, traditions, and customs of your study abroad destination now, and get prepared to truly experience life in a different part of the world.
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