The Art of Travelling Solo: International Experiences of an Abroad Student
Updated: May 9
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 career (bachelor) in Río Negro, a missing town in Patagonia, southern Argentina, in Latin America where not much happens. Despite already at that time having become independent from my family, so to speak, I was still in some way living in what can be known as a ´comfort area´, but at that time I said to myself I wanted to build a base that would help me move further, so I did.
The first movement occurred in my own country, ´step number one´ as I call it, to Buenos Aires, city of chaos, speed and lunfardo (as they refer to the specific adaptation of Spanish spoken there aka Slang) where I completed my master’s degree, at the Universidad Argentina de la Empresa. Anyone could think this does not apply as being an exchange student. Well, officially not, because I was still in my own country. But coming from a province it was for me, and by then 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 ´slow´. Yes, humans adapt to everything.
The second step was to make my first exchange in Brazil. Ok, we are still in the same continent and somehow you could assume this is more of the same, oh no! Every country has its own relationship codes and understanding how people think or get things done can vary even in the same continent. In the country of music, sun and happy people I made an experience at the University of FUMEC, in Belo Horizonte, a beautiful city, where 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.
The third step was to move to a new continent, Europe, and on the side of working had the chance to complete an educational experience at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. This was undoubtedly the most drastic of all experiences. Everything I learned, cried and laughed at that time made me a very strong and even more independent person than the one who left home. But perhaps most importantly, never the same again.
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 Holland, being outside happens only for 3 to 4 months of the entire year because when it is not cold, it rains, and when neither of those two things happen there is a wind that makes cycling (one of the most normal and internationally recognized activities) become almost 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 vitamins 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 to be the priority!
The language would be for me the second aspect to consider. Both in Brazil with Portuguese (language in which the course was taught) and Dutch in Holland (luckily the course was in English) one must know the local language, and if possible, speak it to perfection to better integrate into society. Need I 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.
Dutch love to speak English, and they do it well.
So when they notice that you are not Dutch, they immediately change to English, obviously reducing your opportunity to practice. 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.
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.
Another relevant point is the family. No matter if you have a good or bad relationship with them, 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 your thinking 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 can be you! 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 leave, 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 Holland, the queen is Argentine! And how proud we are of her! There is no occasion when this aspect is not mentioned, both they and we love her, so this is always a ´connection´ topic between both.
Prepare your documents, accreditation, permits, health certificates and get ready for the "next new beginning". 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. My mom always said that after each storm the sun rises, so on those most difficult days remind yourself of this and move on!
Virginia Parrotta: As a consultant, I help my clients in the areas of business development, change management, and communications. I have experience in corporate and international environments and I am currently available for long-term projects as a direct employee or consultant.