The University of Iowa

Top 10 tips for a successful study abroad

July 9th, 2014
view out a plane window

Farewell London, hello Chicago

By Amanda Bartlett*

Just over a month has passed since I stepped off that seemingly never-ending flight back home, and onto my dearly missed American soil (er…pavement?) My days and nights of carefully scheduled tours and jam-packed itineraries have relaxed into those laid-back rhythms of summer that we all look forward to. Though I certainly do feel little pangs of sadness when reminiscing on my favorite UK memories, I can definitely say I have gained a stronger appreciation for my life here in the states as well.

For example: I am welcoming the American dollar versus the British pound with open arms… I didn’t realize how much more expensive everyday spending could get over there! Oops. Lesson learned, I guess.

In a lot of ways, my experience was exactly how I imagined it would be. We got to visit so many unforgettable monuments and historical sites, and some of these moments will be cherished in my mind forever. However, reality did slap me in the face a bit, and I was forced to face the consequences for some minor mistakes I made. Despite that, I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world and I’m so glad I got a chance to experience the places, people, and events that I did.

I know I’ve been following a pretty traditional blog format for my previous posts, but for my final entry, I’ve decided to compile a “top 10” list of tips and things I’ve learned, so that whoever’s reading might have some fresh advice on how to have a successful study abroad:

group photo in England

The 2014 Crime and Justice in Britain class! (minus a couple)

1.Take pictures… LOTS OF THEM. Seriously, how many times will you ever get to come back to this country you’re so lucky to spend time in? There’s a possibility you might never come back again. Yes, in the UK I took obligatory photos of myself walking on Abbey Road and by the London Eye, but looking back, the pictures I almost treasured more were the more personal ones. Make a point to take pictures of the view from your bedroom, your favorite café, some locals you met, etc. Personally, I think those are more likely to trigger those deep-rooted memories of just how I felt in my host country versus countless photos of buildings.

2. Always keep an eye on your stuff! It seems obvious, but pickpocketers have their craft down to a science. They know what they’re doing, and for many of them it’s their main source of income. They’re just waiting for American tourists like you to leave a bag unattended. Always hold onto your stuff, and if possible, put your money, cards, phone, and valuables in a hidden fannypack instead of loosely in your backpack. I learned this the hard way, as my wallet slipped out of my backpack one night and I had to cancel all of my cards/have a two-hour freakout session the next day. Luckily, a kind London student named Catherine (there are good people in this world! Thank you wherever you are!) turned my wallet into the police station, where everything ended up being intact. Regardless of just how lucky I was… DO NOT BE ME. A less dorky option that I found to be almost just as effective was a really small crossbody bag that I could hold onto as I walked around. Anyway, we’re on the topic of pickpocketers…

3. STAY AWAY FROM SKETCHY STRANGERS. Yes, it is fun to meet locals (British accents? Come on, those people could have recited their grocery lists to me and I would have been all ears) but unfortunately you have to watch out for the weirdos out there. Don’t be afraid to talk to people – you’re here to experience a different culture, which they are a huge part of – but always trust your gut. If you have the slightest bad feeling about any person or situation, get out of it as soon as you can. Flag down the authorities if you feel you really need to. Okay, Mom-rant over.

girl standing next to flower box

Be sure to budget for weekend trips too- like this one to Amsterdam

4. Be mindful of your spending. One of my biggest regrets was not forming some sort of budget before I left. I really wanted to try unique foods and dine out every night, which would have been fine if I didn’t do it every day for a week straight. Unfortunately, that sucked away a lot of my money at an alarming rate. If I could re-do it, I would have bought more groceries and prepared more meals in advance to bring with me instead of buying it all. This is especially important for those of you (i.e. everyone) who want to bring home cool souvenirs for your family/friends/yourself… that’s going to matter more than an overpriced meal.

5. Pack lightly! If you’re studying abroad, this has probably already been drilled into your head. Wanna know why? Because they really mean it. You don’t want to drag your group behind because your luggage is overweight and you have to pay an extra $200 fee, plus you won’t have any room for the cool stuff you’re inevitably going to purchase! Stick to a sturdy pair of shoes you know you’ll be comfortable walking in, not a pair to match every outfit. Simplicity is key.

6. Know the country you’re going to be studying in! This seems like a no-brainer, but whether it’s the culture, weather, language or style, keep yourself informed on what the norm is in your host country so you know what to expect. My problem was packing poorly for the blustery and rainy London weather… for the record, just because it’s summer does NOT mean it’s going to be warm there. To avoid a situation like mine, try to bring layers so you’ll be comfortable no matter what. I was lucky and didn’t have to brush up on a foreign language for my trip, but I do know that a lot of people in other countries will respect if you try to put your prior knowledge of their language to use, no matter how rusty.

7. Make copies of all your important documents. From flight itineraries to passports to other essential documentations, you’ll be safe and prepared no matter what happens. If any of them get lost, stolen, or damaged, you’ll have proof of documentation right there with you. Problem solved.

8. Keep a journal! We were already required to as part of our class curriculum, but I do wish I had written in a personal journal to write about my other experiences as well. It’s just another great way to save your memories.

9. Also keep a list of important phone numbers at hand. Whether it’s the contact info for your professor and classmates or the numbers of nearby embassies and consulates, it’s crucial to keep a list of these important phone numbers in a safe place that’s easily accessible. You might never need them, but better safe than sorry. An emergency card with local police and hospital contact info is especially beneficial.

Girl on Harry Potter purple bus

Riding the "Knight Bus" in London on the Harry Potter tour

10. Most importantly… take a chance and study abroad!

As a freshman, I was discouraged from studying abroad and a lot of my professors and classmates suggested that I wait until I was older. But I knew this was something I had set my mind on and really wanted to do. There are classes and time frames for everyone, whether you want to spend a few weeks, a semester, or a whole year abroad. Most people find a program that caters to their major in some way… find what works best for you! I never thought I would take a crime and justice class, but pursuing my curiosity opened me up to a lot of new ideas and knowledge. Being able to experience that in a different country was even more eye-opening, and I feel incredibly lucky to have experienced it so early. So, the bottom line is no matter what your major or path, studying abroad truly is beneficial for everyone. You will learn a lot about yourself and others in a way that simply cannot be matched in a normal classroom setting. Plus, it’s a lot of fun. Just go for it and have the experience of your life!


*Amanda is a freshman from Pleasant Hill, Iowa, majoring in journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa. She recently studied abroad on the summer program Crime and Justice in Britain.