Emily Goodling graduated from Hillsdale College in 2014 as a double-major in German and Classics. She is now getting her master’s degree in Comparative Literature in Mainz, Germany, as a DAAD scholarship holder. She blogs about living and studying in Germany, and other things, at emilysarahabroad.wordpress.com.
Travel light. Wheeling an oversized suitcase over cobblestone streets gets old fast. If you can’t lift it over your head or sprint across a train station with it, you probably don’t need it. Yes, fellow Hillsdalians, that includes the complete leather-bound edition of Augustine you carry everywhere. In all seriousness, though, it is incredibly freeing, both physically and psychologically, to leave your stuff behind and focus on other things while abroad. Unless you are moving to a foreign country for an extended period of time, a carry-on will most likely do.
Become more than a tourist. Pursue opportunities that will allow you to see your city or country from the inside instead of from the outside. For instance: If you are going to be in an area for more than a few months, consider getting a part-time job. Being a part of the workforce offers an entirely different perspective on the way a society works. If you are based in a city, get out into the countryside–perhaps as a part of a program like WWOOF, which offers participants the opportunity to experience life on farms around the world first-hand. And most importantly, develop relationships with people outside of your peer group. See if your university has a program that pairs foreign students with families in the area. Find out where the older generations in your area hang out, and listen to what they have to say.
Get political. This doesn’t mean you have to force yourself to become politically active if that isn’t your cup of tea, but becoming conversant about political issues in your country is incredibly eye-opening. Listen to the local and international news, find out what people your own age are talking about or outraged by, draw connections between the political system in America and in your host country. If there is a demonstration or rally in your town, go to it, and if you find an issue you are passionate about, get involved. For me personally, for instance, observing and participating in the dialogue surrounding the far-right group PEGIDA in Germany has been one of the most eye-opening experiences of my time abroad. Listening to thousands of demonstrators in Dresden singing Germany’s national anthem is 1,000x more powerful than reading any news article or history book.
Say yes. Helping to slaughter chickens on an organic farm in middle-of-nowhere Bavaria? Sign me up. A visit to Europe’s largest disco even though you hate dancing? Yes, please. Do things that take you outside of your comfort zone, that shake you up and make you see the world in a slightly different way. Live with intention; pursue experiences that will give you stories to tell.
Don’t speak English. Of course this only applies if you are in a foreign country with the goal of learning the language–but for me, this was one of the most helpful things I did when I first arrived in Germany. Almost all young people (in Europe, at least) speak very good English, and most are more than thrilled to switch as soon as they find a native speaker. As a result, it is very easy to get sucked into only speaking English, especially if you are on the shy side or unsure of your abilities. And once you begin friendships in English, it is very difficult to switch to the other language later. If you want more opportunities to improve your skills, consider finding a tandem partner who wants to improve their English in exchange for working with you: hang a few posters at the local university, or see if your country has websites designed to help you find a language partner.
Document. Keep a written record of your experiences. Do more than just upload hundreds of pictures to Facebook: write postcards, send emails, start a blog, keep a journal. Tell your own story. There’s something about the process of writing that intensifies experience, that forges and solidifies connections. You are experiencing a new culture, people, and land first-hand, and the opportunity to reflect on that experience is one of the greatest privileges, I think.