Your life abroad will largely be what you make of it. There can be circumstances in which the lasting memories of your trip will be negative (unexpected illness, global events, crime), but there are ways to make your experience one of the most rich and rewarding of your life. Many study-abroad programs offer volunteer opportunities and cultural immersion elements, which you should absolutely take advantage of. Here are some of the ways I made Argentina my home:
While studying abroad, I took a class that required volunteer work, but also added an academic element, so we weren’t going in blind. We studied the causes, missions and histories of the organizations where we volunteered, and wrote papers and gave presentations on our experiences. Many American study abroad programs offer similar opportunities, and most are a great way to deepen and broaden your knowledge of a country.
Go on academic field trips
I took a class through one of the private universities in Buenos Aires that was designed especially for exchange students. The class met twice a week, in a sort of theory/practicum model. One day we would learn about a certain aspect of the Argentine “Social Solidarity” movement, and the next class we would visit an organization that worked in that field. If your program doesn’t provide you with this option, it is easy enough to duplicate it yourself with a bit of research and a good guidebook.
Take advantage of vacations
I lived in Argentina from July 2006 to July 2007, which covered an entire US academic school year (my junior year), but that straddled two Argentine academic years. Meaning I had “summer vacation” from the end of December to the beginning of March – more than two months of time to spend as I wanted. I spent that time on a solo trip through Patagonia. Part of that time was spent working on an organic farm, where, admittedly, I did not learn too much about farming. I did, however, meet some strange and glorious people from all over the world.
Engage with your environment
People’s motivations for studying abroad are many and varied. Make sure you know why you are embarking upon this experience. Studying abroad is not cheap – it costs you money, relationships, and time, so you better make the most of it. If you’re living in Paris to study art, don’t spend all your time and money drinking with other ex-pats. Get your ass to the Musee d’Orsay already.
Befriend the locals
Doing this is imperative to making your study abroad location a home. However, it can be awkward and difficult, especially when dealing with a language barrier. If meeting new people (paired with the additional struggles of being a foreigner) gives you heart palpitations, start small: get to know your local shopkeepers. For example, a produce vendor in my neighborhood would only sell fruits or vegetables to me if I knew their proper Argentine Spanish names. If I called a strawberry a “fresa” and not a “frutilla,” no strawberries for me. Same for calling an avocado an “aguacate” and not a “palta.” Not only did this improve my vocabulary, but the vendor’s willingness to depart her wisdom onto me (albeit cheekily) gave me the confidence to ask her advice in other matters. Which bus would she recommend to get to a particular museum? Is a certain restaurant overrated? Am I getting overcharged at the Laundromat? She always had an answer for me, and as a result, I quickly became much savvier. Plus, to this day, the act of eating a strawberry or avocado is always accompanied by a pleasant rush of nostalgia for my Argentine life and my frutería friend.