3 Things I Wish I Would Have Known Before Studying Abroad

Catherine Shackelford is a student at the University of Arkansas, and an ISA Featured Blogger. She studied abroad with ISA in Thessaloniki, Greece.

Enhancing the experience:

I am not complaining. I’m living in Greece, sailing the most beautiful seas for four hours every day while taking vacations to beaches and historical wonders of the world on the weekend is normal. In two weeks, I will receive an International Sailings License. In three days, I will have visited Corinth, Delphi, and Athens, just because. And in one hour, I will have probably treated myself to another Frappé.

This is not an average experience, where the amazement and awe of what I am seeing and encountering will somehow fade over time. These life-changing moments will remain treasured in my heart, and camera, forever.

I am not complaining. However, I do want to reveal some aspects of studying abroad that will benefit those of you anticipating a journey amidst the shorelines of Greece.

This is a picture of our first night sailing class, where we sailed to Neoi Epivatai to practice our longsided parking.


Food is fuel. It can also dwindle your bank account if you aren’t careful. I took a trip to the grocery store before I left, and those snacks have carried me over for almost four weeks now. Wherever you go, bring snacks. You never know when you’ll be sailing for ten hours without any sight of land, or when you’ll pass a homeless family sleeping on the boardwalk, begging you for food. Greece is also typically really hot, and requires a decent amount of walking, whether that’s anticipated or unanticipated. Travelling itself tends to inspire unpredictability, so make sure to carry something with you. One word of caution: a lot of countries won’t provide things in bulk. Therefore, transporting a couple of small food items from America isn’t a bad idea.


This is where you should be prepared to spend almost all of your money. Depending on where you live, it can be difficult to cook meals at home. Yes, we have a refrigerator and freezer. Yes, we have a stove and oven. But we also don’t have pots or pans or plates or forks or knives or bowls. There are so many variables and challenges around eating at home that most of us here avoid it altogether.

Dinner starts after 8:30 p.m. If you eat out somewhere at around 6:30 or so, it will feel like you’re in a ghost town. But by 10 p.m., the streets are crowded with people. This time frame has become something of a comfort for me, as I can watch the sun set daily over some of the most beautiful seas I’ve ever seen.

At first, restaurants here can feel frustrating. They wouldn’t split the check for us. It was always, and still is, one bill. In Greece, larger parties will share numerous appetizers and entrees, dividing the bill based off of the total rather than on what each individual person ate. It’s cheaper to do that here.

Also, almost every restaurant or store in general will not take cards. Only euros. Most restaurants have a no-smoking sign, but smoking is so engrained in culture to where no one really follows that rule. After a few weeks here, I am more surprised by a café without smoke than one with it. So far, every restaurant has had an ashtray sitting at the center of the table, replacing what could be flowers or other decorations.

Finally, it is important to understand that eating here is more about fellowship than simply eating. This means that you will spend about two to three hours eating before receiving the check. And they won’t simply hand you the check, you’ll have to ask for it. I have learned to love this. Greece as a society is more relaxed than America, and embracing this culture has led to deeper conversations over unrushed meals and incredible fregio.

This cafe was one of my first memories made in downtown Thessaloniki. I had Greek coffee, where you sip till you reach the grimy end of the cup. Someone in the cafe will read the grimy part, interpreting your future by its shape.


This is perhaps the most important thing to study before you leave. If you don’t know the history behind a place, it is harder to experience the culture at its full potential. I came to Thessaloniki with the mentality that I would learn as I go. This is somewhat true. However, we are so entangled with experiencing the city that it’s hard to find time to actually sit down and learn about it. I now see how our lack of knowledge about this city has posed some challenges about what to do, what to see, etc. Greece is rich in history. Even watching a few videos on different historical monuments and roads from Judaism and Christianity could have helped tremendously on what to see.

When you study abroad, I encourage you to do your own research and find a few places that you really want to see. Knowledge will give you more direction on how to make studying abroad the best experience possible. Thankfully, we could utilize ISA, which had preplanned trips and cultural bridges that enabled us to see things we wouldn’t have known about otherwise.

This castle is located in the Old City region of Thessaloniki. I walked seven miles to see this, only to discover that it is currently closed for renovations.


Studying abroad is worth whatever fears or doubts you may be facing. There is no better time to travel and discover yourself than now, right where you are. When you decide to take that leap of faith, I encourage you to start learning now about wherever it is you may go. Read a book, take a class, watch YouTube videos. You could in fact be living right near one of the Seven Wonders without even knowing it.

Ultimately, it is about experience. Knowledge will enhance that. But it cannot take away the wonder of actually going and experiencing a new culture. If you do not act, you cannot experience. Therefore, I hope you do realize that no matter what you read or do to prepare yourself, you have no idea how incredible it will be to study abroad. It is worth every penny and eurocent you have.

The world awaits…discover it.

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