1) Have An Open Mind
While this might seem obvious, actually practicing this anywhere can be extremely difficult. My initial experiences in London testify to this: during my first few weeks of adjustment, I found myself carrying around some culturally presumptuous luggage. I incorrectly assumed that various individuals I met would share the common predispositions about life that I have. Whether those ideas take on a political, social, or cultural dimension, you’re bound to meet someone whose different opinions sound outlandish to you. Instead of recoiling from the difference, try deliberately using it as a starting point for a conversation about cultural outlooks and differences. Such a process—being aware of your assumptions and having the ability to reflexively discuss them—is a great way to express not only mindfulness to whomever you’re conversing with, but also shows them that you have the ability to change and adapt to your environment. Having an open mind is critical to one’s ability to adapt to any environment. Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with anyone; you will find that beautiful truth there is in realizing that between all of us exists some ineffable, common connection of humanity.
2) Say Yes (within reason)
Part of what made my study abroad experience great in London was the fact that I was constantly getting myself involved in activities I would’ve never done back home. IFSA-Butler offered various excursions to different parts of the UK, such as the trips to Canterbury and the Adventure Weekend in Wales. In hindsight, although reluctant at first, saying yes to these excursions and various other activities helped me fall in love with my time abroad and the culture I experienced. Don’t be afraid to commit to plans that might throw you out of your comfort zone, such as visiting different parts of town, trying exotic foods, or going out to that pub or club your friends keep talking about. During my semester, I used to play piano for fun in the music department’s practice rooms. On one occasion, one of the music students asked if I could substitute and play a few tunes with the jazz band at King’s College. I immediately dropped my plans and said yes to his opportunity. After rehearsing with the group, I made great connections that furthered my own music experience while studying abroad in London. Another such occasion was when I accepted an invitation to an open mic night at a pub by a random stranger I had met at a coffee shop. I ended up becoming great friends with the musicians who ran the event, and still talk to these professional players today about their lives in London. These two examples illustrate how by putting myself outside of my comfort zone, I was able to experience wonderful things that had significant impacts on my time abroad. But that’s to say, don’t say yes to everything! Like all things, balance is important to getting the most out of any experience, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t proactively experience things or go to events within reason. So say yes to going to that market, coffee shop you hear about, musical performance, or museum that your friends are going to. After all, you wouldn’t want to miss out on what could be a memory-defining experience!
3) Reset Your Preferences
When experiencing new culture, resetting one’s preferences is essential to getting the most out of novel experiences. As I interacted with new peoples, cuisines, and ways of life, I found myself acquiring new tastes and hobbies that I would have otherwise never found. Wherever you plan on going (especially if it’s London), traveling with this mindset is extremely useful in adapting to your environment. Don’t miss out on going out to a restaurant because you’ve tried the type of food before and didn’t like it! Throw yourself in there, and remember that something done in one country might not be done the same way back home. Often times when I reflect upon the changes I underwent spending a semester abroad, I think about new customs, outlooks, personal styles, and culinary preferences I inherited from my experience. Resetting one’s preferences is an easy way to fall in love with a new place!
4) Take Walks By Yourself
This became my saving grace while studying in London. If there is one thing you should actively do while abroad, walking for the sake of the walking is conducive to developing a special relationship your new home. There are important benefits to doing this: not only will you become more familiar with the geographical layout of the city, taking walks by yourself teaches you a very—very—important lesson about both studying abroad and adult life in general—learning how to be by yourself. Walks allow you to soak it all in: as you explore the city, your mind explores the roads of its own thoughts. You will not regret them!
5) Learn Acceptance
The last tip is one that can help you with your experience abroad and one that your experience will help teach you. While abroad, there are bound to be things that do not go according to plan, upset you, or throw you off your mental and psychological tightrope. Learning to accept certain things as they are, without risking your own mental happiness, can be tremendously useful in coping with some of the deeper and more complex challenges of living abroad. The feelings of solitude, questions of identity, purpose, or existence are not things to shy away from, but to embrace, accept, and utilize as stepping stones in understanding not only your own study abroad experience as a whole, but also your life to come.
Hunter Dorwart is a Political Science student at the University of Florida and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at King’s College London, England.