The Art of Travelling Solo: International Experiences of an Abroad Student
Updated: Sep 13
La vie in Rose Everything that comes with starting an educational exchange in any place that is not 'home' or 'near home' will be a transformacional experience. In this article I would like to share with you the encounters I lived in my different experiences as a foreign student, and I hope to share with you some shortcuts, that I would have liked to know beforehand.
My Three Steps to Go Abroad My experience as a student abroad took place gradually, something like I was preparing to take off in stages. I finished my first program in Río Negro, Patagonia, southern Argentina. The first move occurred within my own country; to Buenos Aires, city of chaos, speed and lunfardo where I completed my master’s degree, at the Universidad Argentina de la Empresa.
I began to develop the first skills that I would have to implement in the second and third steps that would come soon. I recall getting lost, taking the wrong subway, or struggling to understand why people walked so fast. I wondered where they were going until I found myself walking at the same speed and getting upset by those who were not as faster as I considered I was. Yes, humans adapt to everything.
The second step was to make my first university exchange to Brazil (country of music, sun and happiness), to Belo Horizonte, where I took an intensive course at the FUMEC university. Every country and city within the Latin American continent have its own relationship codes and even if we could appear to be similar, it´s not completely like that. Understanding how people think or get things done can vary even in the same continent.
I met wonderful people whom I will remember all my life. I recall the rodizio restaurant smell after class, the humid and warm weather, and the mood of the locals, always happy no matter what. Brazilians seemed to me positive by nature, and I found them among the happiest people around the world. They are very welcoming and always ready to support you to stay and welcome you to enjoy their country.
The educational program included visits to the most important companies of the area, some NGOs and small business. All the lessons where conducted in Portuguese and we got to learn a lot about Brazilian economy, people management and "Emprendorismo", a Brazilian word that stands for 'entrepreneurship'.
My third move was to a new continent, Europe, and on the side of working, I had the chance to complete an educational experience at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. This was undoubtedly the most powerful of all experiences ever. Everything I learned, made me an extraordinarily strong and even more independent person than the one who left home. But perhaps most important, never the same again. I would get to develop skills and learn a lot about myself and others in ways that I could have ever dreamed of. The advantages and disadvantages, or the different. First thing I can think about is the climatic factor. I come from a country in Latin America, where the sun is always present, including winter. That naturally leads to the fact that most social relationships occur outdoors, and much happens outside. When you move to a country like the Netherlands, being outside happens only for 3 to 4 months of the year because when it is not cold, it rains, and when neither of those two things occur there is a wind that makes cycling (one of the most normal and internationally recognized activities) like a heavy lifting activity at the gym, your legs get so strong, so does your character!.
You must have a lot of courage to avoid letting the winter syndrome affect you, and sometimes as a foreigner you should help yourself with vitamin D and short trips to somewhere where the sun is (if you can afford of course). It can also be said that this makes your life more circumscribed within. The good? There are more reasons for studying and working to be the priority! The language would be for me the second aspect to consider. Knowing the local language, and if possible, speaking it, will certainly help you to better integrate into society. Do I need to explain how difficult it is to speak Dutch? I tried repeatedly, and what makes it even more difficult is that the Northern European countries integrate English into their school systems early on, which means that almost everyone can start a great English based conversation with you, living sometimes Dutch as a second option, because they see that as an opportunity to practice and also an opportunity to make things easier for you, although you are trying to learn their language! If you come to understand me, surely the biggest challenge is to be able to speak it. I guess this applies to any new language, French, German, Chinese, Hindi, etc.
Dutch love to speak English, and they do it well.
Network, network, network The networking is gorgeous. You will be given the opportunity to meet wonderful people who surely have an adventurous spirit as big as yours and who are looking for the same as you: a personal and professional development, who know that it very much comes from the discomfort of living and studying in foreign lands. From teachers, to your classmates, to all those people who will cross your path will be willing to help you, each one will leave (and you surely equal to them) a memory in your life. Some of you will become friends, they will continue in contact through social media, some will meet again in some other exotic country, but above all you will be willing to help each other. I have discovered that there will always be someone willing to give you a hand when you are in the solitude of living and studying in a country that is not yours. Everything is family Another relevant point is family, you will miss them. And you will notice life will continue without you, you will get to know about birthdays, graduations, marriages, and all-important events by social media (well, better than nothing!) The children grow, the older gets older and the distance is turning everything blurry. If there is an opportunity to return home, one realizes that all these experiences have only turned you into a new self, a new identity. That makes the new you have certain challenges by wanting to connect with the “never changing” family members, who for some reason decided to stay there without experiencing these new experiences that attract you so much. Home will never be home again, and this is the hard part of being an expat. You will never be the same than the one that left the country for the first time, and this dilemma will join you forever. What will surprise you You will realize about things from you that you didn't even know you had. You will develop (in addition to technical and theoretical knowledge that you went to acquire to enrich your professional practice) new skills, you will expand, and you will find yourself thinking in new ways. Linking with all these new cultures will only expand you as a person and help you see life through a new pair of lenses. Be ready to find out who you can become! And, be ready to meet amazing people on the way to whom you will share and achieve great things together! Some tips for everything to go well
Knowing the battlefield, but above all your strengths and weaknesses will help you a lot. Get in touch with the educational center and ask them to help you prepare. Make lists with what you should not forget and make sure to check all those things that concern you, from internet access to meals based on your allergies. If you already know where you will be based make a good research of your neighbor, what's near by and different places to visit in your spare time.
Preparation is key. Yes, this is a cliché, but for some reason it is. Learn about the local culture, what you should not do, what you should do and what they think of your culture, this will simplify things a lot. For example, in the Netherlands, the queen is Argentinian! And how proud we are of her! There is no occasion when this topic is not mentioned in a conversation, so this is always a 'connection' subject between both.
Prepare your documents, accreditation, permits, health certificates and get ready for the "next new beginning". Spend time to clarify and ensure you have everything ready: associated costs, visas, rentals, life or health insurance, specific requirements of the country or institution of which you will be a part.
If at any time you feel a little alone, remember what you have come to do and go outside, do not lock yourself in your apartment, nothing is forever, give yourself time and remember that you have decided to do this adventure for reasons that only you know.
My last advice and perhaps the most important, find a space where you feel you belong.
It can be within the same academic institution, a group of representatives of your country, a sports group, any hobby you enjoy, create the connection with a group that is always for you and that you are always for them! This trip is fantastic, I hope my story has helped you and that you find support in my words. After each storm, the sun rises, so on those most difficult days remind yourself of this and move on!
Virginia Parrotta Camacho currently resides in The Netherlands where she helps people and business in the areas of business development, change management, and communications. Get in touch with her by clicking on the link.