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Expat Women - General Articles - Preparing to Study Abroad:
The Logistics of Packing, Researching, and Planning - Brian Freedman

Preparing to Study Abroad: The Logistics of Packing, Researching, and Planning

Brian Freedman

The hardest part of the study abroad experience -- more difficult than any potential culture-shock, more taxing than any amount of time you'll spend away from that new girlfriend or boyfriend you've recently fallen so deeply in love with -- is preparing for it. This may seem like a bit of an overstatement, but the reality is that the physical prep work can be as confusing and as overwhelming as any other part of the experience. Once you're there, of course, you'll have the time of your life. But in order to make the most of your semester or year abroad, you'll need to spend the weeks leading up to departure day making a concerted effort to pack wisely, research well, and plan ahead. Do these three things, however, and you'll be able to focus on what really matters once you're there: making the most out of your experience.

Pack Wisely

Remember those slumber parties everyone had as a little kid, the ones for which your mother packed a way-too-big duffel bag with every item of clothing you owned in order to ensure that you'd be comfortable regardless of weather conditions or the efficacy of the heating and air conditioning in the house you'd be sleeping in?

That was nothing compared to this kind of packing.

You'll want to start by researching what kind of weather to expect. Most programs, of course, will include this information in one of the many envelopes or packages you should expect to receive prior to your departure. But it never hurts to investigate it yourself. What has the weather recently been like at your destination? Are there long-range forecasts you can find on the Internet? Educate yourself as much as possible before you leave, and pack appropriate clothing. If you'll be in Paris in February of March, it's probably a good idea to buy a top-notch raincoat while you're still at home. If you're leaving for an environmental-studies program in Ecuador in August, a few pairs of shorts are appropriate. But don't limit your selection of clothing to just what will probably be useful: Weather forecasting is an inexact science, and monthly and seasonal temperature and precipitation averages are based on data from a number of years. That means that the weather gods will not always be benevolent and do what they're supposed to. Sometimes it snows in Jerusalem. Once in a while, Geneva hits 70 degrees in March. Make sure you pack a few contingency items, as well. You never know, after all, what each day will bring.

You should also consider the local clothing customs. Remember, not all countries view personal expression the way we do here in the United States, and the way college students dress for classes on your home campus will likely be very different from how they will at your school abroad. It is a safe bet that local clothing customs in your destination will be a bit more conservative, or a least a bit more dressy, than what you're used to. America, after all, is a rather casual place. In New York in August, for example, you'll likely see all kinds of clothing, from snappy linen suits to tank tops that barely cover up what one would assume they're supposed to. But in Rome or Cairo, lightweight long pants and a flattering hot-weather top are much more appropriate. And no matter how cold or miserable the weather is, a pair of sweatpants and a hoodie are never appropriate for a Parisian café or a Viennese coffeehouse.

Research Well

No matter how much you have traveled in the past, no matter how many countries you've visited, living in a foreign land for an extended period of time is totally different. A vacation is about seeing the sights and eating a few good meals. Studying abroad is about integrating yourself into the culture and adopting the ways of the locals -- at least to some extent -- over the course of your time there. A little research will go a long way toward making your transition as painless as possible.

The world is a beautiful and varied place, and the range of customs is seemingly infinite. The more you do to prepare yourself for the new and the different, the easier it will be for you to accept and perhaps even adopt these new ways of doing things.

In Arab countries, it is rude for men to cross their legs in a way that shows the bottom of their shoes; this is considered insulting to the person at whom your feet are pointing. In part of Greece and Italy, the thumbs-up -- what we take to mean "Great! Awesome!" -- is actually the equivalent of giving someone the middle finger. The list goes on and on. Familiarize yourself with the local customs before you leave home; the last thing you want to do is respond to a Roman waiter's inquiry about the quality of your spaghetti aglio e olio with a big ol' thumbs-up. You may never get dessert.

The old line about knowledge being the key to success is even more relevant when applied to a student who is preparing to study abroad. If you arm yourself with a solid understanding of the customs and general modes of interaction in your destination country, you will have done all you can to ensure a fun, educational, and rewarding experience abroad.

Plan Ahead

Living in a foreign country is vastly different from visiting it as a tourist. You'll likely have to set up a foreign bank account, arrange for cellphone service, and, depending on the program you've chosen, find an apartment. Fortunately, the Internet has made it possible to do most of these things from the comfort of home. You should also arrive in your destination country with enough of the foreign currency to get you by for the first day, which will entail a whirlwind of activity that may very well prevent you from hitting an ATM right away. It's also a good idea to have a phone card with you. This way, even if you have problems with your email or cellphone when you first arrive, you'll still be able to contact people.

Then there is the issue of language. It's always a good idea to take a semester or three of coursework in the language of your destination country. But if your decision to study abroad was made too late for that, there are programs you can buy that will help. These range from simple and inexpensive phrasebooks and audio CD's to computer programs that fully immerse you in the language of the place and that cost hundreds of dollars. Even though you will adapt to the foreign language once you have lived and interacted with speakers of it for four to six weeks, this process will be that much easier if you learn as much as you can before you go.

Finally, never underestimate the importance of peanut butter. In other words, always pack some sort of taste of home that will last the entire length of your time abroad. You may love Italian or Mexican or German food, but the time will come, once the initial newness of everything fades a bit, that you will crave a bite or two of some American standby that you just cannot get overseas. A jar of peanut butter or a tube of Pringles will provide a much needed sense of culinary familiarity when you need it. They take up very little room in a suitcase but provide a huge psychological boost in those moments of (hopefully fleeting) homesickness.

The bottom line is this: Your preparations for a semester or a year abroad will range from exciting to stressful to joyous to nerve-wracking. The months and weeks leading up to your departure will be some of the most exciting and frightening you've ever had. It is important to enjoy even that part of the process, and to make the most of it. If you can pack wisely, research well, and plan ahead, then your time abroad will be as amazing and as rewarding as you've always dreamed it would be.

Copyright of IIE Passport. The original article can be found at: http://www.iiepassport.org/ Reposted with permission.
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