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Advice for Getting Involved Abroad: As Told by A Temporary Kiwi

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Going to a foreign university in a foreign country can be really intimidating, especially when you start thinking about how to get integrated into student life.  It’s hard when you don’t know anyone, everything is new, and you’re unsure of how you fit into the whole picture. I think the best way to get acclimated to the culture is to fling yourself into the mix and get involved with a couple of clubs as soon as possible. I’ve written down a few tips that helped me navigate the ups and downs of campus involvement, and hopefully they will help you too.

Doing It All.

The club fair at the University of Otago was an overwhelming and dazzling experience.  Every four or five steps I took I was bombarded by clubs such as Young Nats, Fire Twirling, and Laser Tag.  They all had smiling faces, incredible offers, and in the end were my ticket to experiencing life as a true university Kiwi.  Though at first I found myself overwhelmed and I wanted to turn around and go home, I forced myself to talk to each and every club.  Even if I didn’t join, by speaking to the representatives, I was able to get a feel for life at Otago and that gave me a strong base of support for the rest of the semester.
My advice for you is to make sure you try multiple things. Maybe do something you’re comfortable with, maybe try something you’re not, and maybe do multiple things that are very much in between.  The point is, you should try it all!  Because why not?  You’re abroad, go for it.  At the end of the club fair I had joined the tramping club and the ski club because I felt comfortable in the outdoors and wanted to meet similar people.  At the same time I ended up joining the kickboxing club because I wanted to try something new and it definitely intimidated me. Each of these clubs helped me grow in different ways, but they were each equally as important to my experience there.
Looking back on it, I’m very happy that I chose this particular club variety.  Through the tramping and ski club I was able to rent gear and really become surrounded by the Dunedin student social life.  I put myself in a position where I knew the basic skill (tramping or skiing), but the “Kiwi” version was the new part.  That gave me such a strong foundation and a way to connect with people who also had the same passions.  Kickboxing was something I’d never tried or even really thought about before New Zealand.  I didn’t know anything about it, and that was absolutely terrifying. I met and connected with Kiwis who also had never done it before, and our mutual inexperience ended up being a great way to find common ground!  There were times when I was completely confident and other times where I was totally unsure– but as luck would have it, that’s a recipe for success when you’re abroad.

Being Alone is Good!

If you can, try going alone.  I know it may sound scary, but by putting yourself out there without a safety net, you will end up walking away with much more.  Think about it, you are more likely to talk to people, to ask questions, to meet local people… and all of those things are steps to success for strong future relationships.  It’s not always possible, and sometimes it is nice to go with people you’re comfortable with, but I highly suggest taking to the time to arrive without the fallback of friends.  You never know who you might end up talking to.
At one point during the first club fair I was very alone and I found myself shrinking back to become a wallflower.  Instead, I pushed myself to speak to someone else standing at the dance club’s table and we connected over our love of dance. Although I didn’t become best friends with this person, by simply speaking with them I gained reassurance in the overwhelming situation and it gave me the courage I needed to approach other tables.  It seemed like every time I pushed myself to speak to someone new, I was less intimidated and more confident.  That is a skill that I will use for the rest of my life.

You ARE New to This.

Don’t be afraid to be the Newbie.  In general people like to explain their craft, so if you’re excited about what you’re learning, you’ll most likely get a very warm welcome.  Never feel weird about not knowing something. You can always learn it, and it’s actually easier to connect with people if you show a vulnerable side.
Some of my best friends from study abroad came out of me not knowing the “correct” way to do things.  For example, when I was looking for the location of an event I was supposed to attend, I randomly ran into a couple of other international students. They were also very lost and we ended up exploring new areas of campus together since no one knew where to go and it made for a really fun night.  The fact that we were all vulnerable together and were willing to show that we were lost allowed us to be honest and get to know each other.  It was moments like these where I found myself making the deepest connections.  Although it was sometimes hard to be willing to expose myself as someone who doesn’t know what’s going on, through trial and error I learned how important it was to be vulnerable and ask for help.

Don’t Be “Too Cool”

Go to all the campus events whether or not you think they’ll be fun.  Because who knows, maybe that thing you’ve never even heard of before is your true passion and you won’t know until you try it.  I definitely went to events thinking they weren’t going to be fun, but they turned out to be really beneficial.  For example, I went to a clubs fair even though I didn’t think I would sign up for any university clubs for just a semester…but that’s exactly what I did, and I had such a blast!

It’s Temporary, But That’s Okay!

It’s okay to be in a club just for a semester.  Just because you’re there for a short period doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.  In fact, you absolutely should try because you never know what kind of opportunities will arise for you in the future.  These fun events could turn into much, much more, and maybe this will be the connection you need to slingshot you into your future.
Overall, I think it’s easy to ignore the prospect of joining clubs and groups on campus while abroad since your time abroad is often very separate from your time at your home university, but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored.  There’s huge value in putting yourself out there, trying new things, and meeting new people.  All of those things stem from getting involved.  Joining groups is a great way to experience the culture at a deeper level than most travelers ever get.  This is a unique opportunity that you have full access to, so don’t pass it up, and don’t be afraid.  Studying abroad was one of the most impactful and influential experiences I’ve had so far, and because I was willing to put myself out there in ways that made me very nervous I gained a strong sense of courage and self-confidence.

Lauren March is a student at the University of Puget Sound and studied abroad with IFSA at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand in 2017.