9 Tips for a Fulfilling Study Abroad Experience

Annarose Qualls is a student at University of Idaho and an ISA Featured Blogger. She studied abroad with ISA in Barranquilla, Colombia.

Study abroad is full of ups and downs, expectations and surprises, and a steep learning curve. Whether you’re just starting out, finishing up, or beginning to consider going abroad, I hope these tips will give you a little leg up.

Tip #1: Set goals

Before beginning, sit down and identify your goals. What is it you want to experience and accomplish? Be specific. Once you’ve brainstormed these, take steps to complete each one. One of my biggest goals was to build strong friendships with local Colombians. I felt this was the best way to challenge myself, experience Barranquilla, and learn about my host country. I immediately joined some dance classes, found a church, and reached out to classmates. Identify your goals and make them happen.

Taken at a park in the neighborhood where I like to go and people watch, journal, or dream up new goals.

Tip #2: Start by making one good friend

Don’t feel pressured to immediately make tons of friends. If you’re pulling yourself too many directions, you may not develop very rich friendships. Rather, start by finding one person who you enjoy.

My friend Megan and I exploring colonial architecture on the coast.

Invest in that relationship: go explore with them, try out some new foods, ask them lots of questions.

Two buddies enjoying the Caribbean sunset together.

You will probably meet other like-minded people through them and soon find yourself in a community you love. It’s not about quantity, but quality.

Soon after arriving in Colombia, a friend invited me on a young adults retreat where I met many more friends and had a whole lot of fun!

Tip #3: Just say yes

I swear – this will change your life! For me, saying yes was the key to a fulfilling study abroad. Although this is obviously coupled with a caution on following your instincts and being safe, so many unique opportunities, experiences, and people will cross your path while abroad. They may be unfamiliar and outside your comfort zone, but often those things are the most memorable. So just say yes… I promise you won’t regret it!

Meet two girls on a bus who promptly invite you to visit their family for four days? Why not! Some street musicians ask you to sing with them in front of a busy intersection? Go for it! Someone says jump into a funky mud volcano? Please do!

Tip #4: Get involved in your community

Consistent volunteer opportunities are one of the best ways to do this! Not only are you giving back, you meet local people, learn about social issues, and grow as a person. Engaging could even be as simple as learning your neighbors’ names. Whatever local involvement looks like for you, this is something that will make each day abroad feel more worthwhile.

Tip #5: Go explore (but not too much)

Get out there and see what your host country has to offer. Ask locals where their favorite places to go are as well as for tips for traveling economically. But don’t forget to build roots in your host city. I found it important to stay home some weekends so that I could invest in local relationships, get to know the area, and engage with my community.

The breathtaking view from atop La Piedra del Peñol, a geological wonder two hours from Medellin.

Tip #6: Be Creative in connecting with your host family/housemates

Although living with strangers (especially from a different culture) can be awkward, funny, and even difficult at times, it’s a wonderful opportunity to grow. Even if it may seem you have nothing in common, be creative and think of ways to connect. My host mom just opened a restaurant and one way I show that I care is by spending time there. It takes effort, but positive relationships in the home make a world of difference.

Tip #7: Remember self-care

Self-care is important to a healthy, positive, and fulfilling study abroad. Identify what things help you find balance and refuel. It may be a walk through the neighborhood, an afternoon reading in the sun, some familiar tunes, or journaling. One of my favorite self-care activities that connects me to home is baking (I joke that I won my friends through my cookies). Whatever this is for you, make sure to take a break from the adventure and care for yourself.

Some “me time” I took one morning during Semana Santa in Cartagena.

Tip #8: When you hit a slump, mix it up!

The three-quarters slump is something commonly faced by study abroad students. By this time, you’re most likely fairly well adjusted to your host city. The culture shock has worn off and routine has set in. Things may even feel a little boring. Don’t check out. Don’t move on to the next thing. Lean into the rest of your time and get as much out of it as you can. Throw some new spice in the mix – a new activity, a break in the routine, a push to complete all the goals you dreamed up. Don’t let that slump own you, own it!

Spicing it up in the kitchen as we learned how to make traditional Colombian food at an ISA event.

Tip #9: Learn as much as you possibly can about your host country

Ask so many questions. Ask your host family about the current political system and what life was like during other decades. Ask your local friends about beliefs, norms, slang, and social issues. Ask about history, conflict, geography; ask about their lives. Become an expert on your host country. And along the way, you’ll get to know its people pretty well too.

Wishing you an adventurous and fulfilling time abroad!


Your Discovery. Our People… The World Awaits.

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