This post is focused on what I feel are five of the most relevant things that I wish I had known before studying abroad. These are applicable to studying abroad anywhere but are especially relevant to my time in South Africa, and even more specifically to Port Elizabeth. I hope they can provide a feeling of readiness for anyone getting ready to study abroad!
Packing is something that stresses me out regardless of whether I’ll be gone for one night or five months. I’m notoriously bad about overpacking and taking things that I know I won’t need, but there’s always the lingering what if? Studying abroad has taught me a lot about how to be better at packing—while I’m here and for future trips.
Before leaving, I was incredibly stressed about what things I would want while abroad. Since then, I’ve established three main categories: 1) clothing, 2) toiletries, and 3) personal items. Clothes are obvious, but how to pack five months’ worth of them in two suitcases is not. My advice for packing clothes is to choose ones you wear regularly and can go with a variety of other clothes. Don’t take that top that only goes with only one pair of pants, because you won’t wear it (I speak from experience). I would also suggest bringing items that you can layer, such as flannels or sweaters. They add diversity to your wardrobe without a ton of extra clothing to pack.
For toiletries, it’s difficult because there might be something you really like at home that you’re worried you won’t be able to find abroad. If that’s the case, pack enough for the time you’ll be gone. For other things (like shampoo and conditioner or toothpaste), don’t worry. At first, it might seem crucial to take the ones you use at home, but there will be plenty of options, even if they’re different from those you’re used to.
The last thing I can suggest when packing is to think of personal items. These can be photos, a digital camera, or an old card from a loved one. Being abroad can be tough, and having things that remind you of your loved ones and home is super important. You don’t need to pack a lot; a little goes a long way.
2. Comparing yourself to others
This one might seem obvious, but it’s something I’ve found important to remind myself of while I’ve been abroad. This point goes for those currently in your program, your friends (abroad and at home), and those who did the same program before you: The people around you are going to do their own thing. So are your friends at home and abroad, both in your program and elsewhere. That doesn’t mean that what you do in comparison to them makes your time abroad somehow better or worse.
Remember that it’s your time abroad and you make of it what you will by doing things, not by comparing. This applies especially to social media. What people post is incredibly filtered, and what you see are the highlights. Don’t let yourself compare what you think others are doing and have it impact your time abroad.
Weather is something that might seem trivial to know about before studying abroad, but it’s more important when going to the Southern Hemisphere. Seasons are flipped from the Northern Hemisphere, and that can be somewhat jarring (at least it was for me). I arrived in July, which is summer for me at home but winter in Port Elizabeth. Winter here is milder than what I’m used to in Colorado, but it’s still an adjustment to leave behind a hot summer and arrive to cold rain.
The weather that I still haven’t gotten used to is the wind. Port Elizabeth has two nicknames: the “Friendly City” and the “Windy City.” It lives up to both. The wind is definitely not something that I was not prepared for when arriving, but I’ve adjusted to it. As the winter has moved into spring and summer, the wind has died down, but it’s still something to be mindful of. With that, I’d suggest leaving any umbrellas you have at home; they won’t do you much good here.
Relationships might seem like another obvious thing, but there are some specifics that I wish I’d known about before leaving. Putting yourself out there is incredibly important and sometimes difficult, especially in another country away from most of your support systems. From making friends with those in your program to other international and local students, it’s a lot to navigate all at once. Take time to explore who you’re abroad with, and remember it’s never too late to make new friends or talk to other people. Get out of your comfort zone to make the most of your time abroad in this respect.
Regarding your support systems at home, take time to check in with them and communicate how you’re doing. Your relationships with your family, friends, etc., are all still important to maintain. They want to know how they can support you!
Most importantly, though, know that it’s okay to be confused or worried or even scared sometimes. As cheesy as it might sound, those feelings come with studying abroad. Talk to those around you, and take time to process the feelings instead of dismissing them or letting them build up. Chances are that someone else around you has felt or is feeling the same way.
Last but definitely not least is time. I mean this in a variety of ways. One of those is alone time. Studying abroad can be overwhelming, and you’ll want to do as much as possible, but it’s also important to take time to process and decompress. Regardless of the frequency, give yourself time on your own every now and again.
Another aspect of time is how it works when you’re abroad. From my experience, it feels like time works differently. Some days go by so fast, some go by painfully slowly, and then all of a sudden you have less than a month before you go home. This isn’t said to alarm anyone, but rather as a reminder to make the most of your time abroad. In the beginning, everything is new and different and exciting, then you fall into some sort of a routine. But that doesn’t mean that your initial excitement should go away.
The last thing I wish I had known about is the time difference. Here, the time difference from home is eight hours (now nine because of daylight savings). That difference has been an adjustment for me, as I can’t always call or get an immediate response from someone back home. My personal way of dealing with this has been to put extra effort into communicating with those that I want to talk to. Eventually, you’ll form a routine and figure out what works best for you.
Now, I know that the five things I’ve listed are pretty generalized, but it’s because nobody’s study abroad experience is the same. The “obvious” things are obvious for a reason. This list is meant to provide some insight into various things that will come up, regardless of how or when. Hopefully, it helps make studying abroad even better for you!