3 Ways to Make Your Study Abroad Experience Unique and Amazing

Michelle Alderink is a student at Grand Valley State University  and an ISA Featured Blogger. Michelle is currently studying abroad with ISA in Granada, Spain.

la alhambra
La Alhambra

As my time in Granada is coming to an end, I’m realizing this is this the hardest blog post yet. I could never put into words the amazing experiences, great memories with new friends and even character-changing challenges I’ve experienced here. All I can say is that following my instincts to study in Granada was simply the best and most important decision I’ve ever made. That being said, I’d like to leave you with 3 pieces of advice to ensure that you have an amazing study abroad experience during which you’re just as amazed and challenged as I have been.

1. Realize not every day will be an ideal adventure

Preparing for Spain, I was beyond excited to see and experience everything I possibly could in 4 months. Despite my excitement for almost everything I’ve done while in Granada, there were many days where I wanted to pack up and head home. I was frustrated, annoyed and sick of feeling vulnerable. What I didn’t realize was that there are different types of culture shock and homesickness that require patience.
Typical forms of culture shock consist of “They eat what here?!” and “Why do people greet each other like that?!” Similarly, people mainly think of simply missing family and friends when homesickness is brought up. Although I did miss my family while abroad, I never felt stressed or anxious about that specific aspect of homesickness; what got me was the lifestyle change.

Back in the good, old Midwest (shout out to west Michigan), I never took public transportation. Here in Granada, despite walking to school every day, there were times I couldn’t walk somewhere and had to learn how to take a bus and read a bus map. It sounds easy, but to someone used to relying on her on-foot navigational skills, it was frustrating. There were times in which I got off at the wrong stop and had to wait another hour and pay a second fee to get back on because I didn’t know where I was. Another time I was late to my internship because the bus driver didn’t have change for my 20, and one time I fell completely backwards down the stairs because the bus driver didn’t wait for me to sit down. Regardless of your public transportation skills, I can assure you that at least one element of your host city will literally make you want to rip your hair out. Welcome these challenges, as they will teach you patience and strength.

Because of the bus difficulties and other challenges (“Why is the information not posted online?” or the even more frustrating “What do you mean there’s no customer service number to call?”) there were days in which I hunted down a pastelería (pastry shop) to find American chocolate cake and one specific afternoon I spent watching the Big Bang Theory,  in English, to attempt to put myself in my comfort zone. Although it’s important to adapt to where you’re living, there will be days you’d give anything to go home, so indulging in something American isn’t always bad. Just remember to expect frustrations and setbacks and to take the time you need to deal with your emotions before getting out and exploring more. You’re not on vacation; you’re living here, so don’t expect every day to be as incredibly amazing as you have imagined.

2. Imagine your own ideal study abroad experience (and make it happen!!)

Before even deciding to study in Granada, I knew I wanted to make my city my second home by creating an authentic connection. I’m proud to say that I’ve been successful in researching popular sites and forming relationships with locals and will leave with the assurance that Granada will always hold a special place in my heart (corny but true). Instead of obsessing over visiting as many different restaurants or stores as I could, I became a regular at a few places, such as Via Verde. I preferred forming a strong connection to a few restaurants rather than having a general familiarity with many.

Intercambios. Making relationships was one way in which I created a strong connection with Granada

At the same time, remember that other students will have other motives and goals for their study abroad experience and that yours could be different but are just as valid. Many times, I interacted with people who had traveled all over Europe and others who knew a ton of great restaurants, and I became jealous of them and wished I had explored more. However, as I mulled over the possibility of another international trip, I realized that’s not what I came to Spain for. I didn’t come to “see the world” and become familiar with great restaurants all over Granada, but instead to experience the culture and make Granada my home. That said, make sure you come with an idea of how you want to spend your time abroad and always follow your own goals. This may require independence and doing some things alone. I participated in a lot of activities offered by the University of Granada that none of my friends were interested in, so I learned to fly solo and do my own thing. I never felt like I missed out on anything that I wanted to do, and going alone was actually quite enjoyable and let me focus on the activity.

3. Constantly remind yourself that this experience is once in a lifetime

Never stop letting your host city mesmerize you. Never. Walking to school and going about daily activities  eventually becomes the norm and part of your routine; It’s important to constantly search out new things to do, and never stop learning about your city. Reading about and researching your city before is a must before leaving but is even more crucial when you get there. Talk to locals about the most important aspects and sights in your city and seek them out. Even if you have to take a different path to school to keep things interesting never allow yourself to feel anything but awe and intrigue for your host city.

My best recommendation is to find one place where you feel most connected to your city and visit as often as you can. Experiencing and seeing a lot is important but having one special place that you vividly remember is priceless. My favorite place in all of Granada is without a doubt the Mirador de San Nicolás, which looks over Granada and the Alhambra palace (my second favorite place). Every time I visit, I’m reminded of why I love Granada so much which confirms my decision to study here. On my last night in Granada, just a month away, I’m going to visit this beautiful place and reflect on my entire experience and smile knowing I definitely have made Granada my second home.

View from La Alhambra

3 thoughts

  1. awwwww im proud of you and your goals,wing fow will be out when you get home

  2. These are great tips! #1 is especially true– we all have such high expectations that each day abroad will be magical, but sometimes forget that we’ll hit some bumps here and there, just like at home. Just gotta keep on keeping on :)

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