Photo: Anze Furlan/Shutterstock

The 2 Types of Study Abroad, and How to Score the 'Right' One

by Corey Breier May 15, 2013

I recently studied abroad in Barcelona for two full semesters. I would highly recommend going abroad anywhere for the full year rather than just a semester, for a few reasons: You stop being a tourist and start feeling like a local, you can forge lasting friendships with locals because they know you’re not leaving in two months…and, most importantly, in the second semester you can fix all the mistakes you made in your first.

My first semester in Barcelona was a blast. I went out almost every weeknight, traveled every weekend to locations around Europe, and made friends with new people from across the United States, since my program wasn’t tied to a specific university. But I didn’t really experience Barcelona. Sure, I ticked all the big sights off my list, and discovered plenty of hole-in-the-wall places the hordes of tourists on La Rambla will never see.

However, since I lived with Americans, went to school with Americans, and generally only spent time with Americans, the whole semester was basically one huge eurotrip — well into the second month I still expected to be heading home to a hostel at the end of the night.

Certainly this is what some study abroad students are looking for — a semester-long vacation in an exotic locale with endless nights out, frequent border hopping, and schoolwork as an afterthought. But somewhere in the midst of all that I felt something was deeply wrong. Why did I come to Barcelona if I spent most of my time away from it, and all my time in it with North Americans? I didn’t know a single Spanish person other than the two locals my program had introduced me to through their language-exchange program. While they were very nice, it was obvious our relationship was strictly business, and I had to push them to nail down café dates.

Luckily I had another three months, and I vowed to set things right.

This was not what I’d wanted. Yet, how could I complain? I was living in downtown Barcelona, with few to no obligations and a small army of like-minded American friends at my back. My program had delivered to me everything I’d asked it for — I simply had forgotten to ask for Spaniards.

Luckily I had another three months, and I vowed to set things right. I went to my program and asked how I could fix my detailed list of grievances. The solution wasn’t that hard, but it entailed a lot of paperwork and legwork on my part. I switched schools to another university and enrolled in classes that included equal numbers of local students and foreigners. I also renounced my program housing contract and opted to secure an apartment on my own through the tangled web of Barcelona listings.

The decision to go through with this led to a first week living out of a hostel and furiously coordinating with locals around the city to inspect their (mostly crappy) apartments, while simultaneously entering into a new school with zero friends. I had no choice on that front, though, because 99% of the friends I’d made the previous semester were Americans who’d already gone back to the States — which further proved to me that I’d done something fundamentally wrong the first time around.

My second semester was an incredibly disparate experience, even though I lived less than five minutes from my old apartment and commuted past my old school on the way to the new one. I finally managed to find a good apartment with friendly young Catalan flatmates, who were more than happy to speak castellano with me day in and day out. I made new friends from around the world, as well as more than a few locals. My new classes weren’t exactly hard, but they weren’t a complete waste of time like the last ones were. Yet I still felt I could have integrated myself more, given that they were taught in English.

After some searching, I realized I could join a castellers team, those crazy human towers I’d marveled at during festivals the semester prior. This may have been too much integration, since they conducted their practices in catalan, but I still spoke Spanish way more often, met numerous friendly natives, and learned countless little idiosyncrasies about the Barcelonian way of life.

There’s no reason why you can’t immerse yourself in both the culture and the party.

In short, my second semester was everything I’d wanted from my first. Yet I doubt I could have engineered such an experience right off the bat — I was just another wide-eyed American fresh off the plane back in September. With a solid understanding of Barcelona gained from my first semester, I was able to specifically target the things I wanted (and did not want) from my second one. For me, that entailed abandoning almost all vestiges of my study abroad program, but you may have different personal goals. That said, if you want to have a more immersive study abroad experience, there are three important things to do, no matter where you’re headed:

1. Find housing through a different provider than your study abroad program.

    1. Unless they can place you with a host family solo, you’re likely to be living with at least one other American, and if you choose an apartment or residence, it’ll be with five of them, or worse, an entire building. You want a situation that will expose you to locals on a daily basis with no escape route, and the best way to do that is by living with them. Yes, it will be difficult to find one through local listings, but it’ll be worth it.

2. Engage in an extracurricular activity. Most of us do some kind of hobby other than school back at home — chances are they have something similar in your adopted town. Even better, they may have a team or classes that carry out a local tradition. Take a salsa class, join a cricket team, teach English at a local school, volunteer. Bottom line: Get out of your American bubble somehow.

3. Make sure you have classes with locals. No matter how lazy you are, classes with locals will provide you with daily opportunities to engage with non-Americans, and may lead to group projects where you’re forced to converse entirely in a foreign language. If there are classes available conducted in said language, take them. I thought I wasn’t good enough to do so, but I was wrong, and you are too. You’ll get good enough. The first month will be hard, but when you have no choice but to master it, you’ll be fluent in no time.

Of course, if you prefer the party semester, go for it, and enroll in everything directly through your program. It’s going to be a fun-filled time that’ll leave you with crazy stories, but you’ll never get what you would out of a culturally immersive semester. Remember that time you took five Jagerbombs and passed out on the metro only to get woken up at the end of the line by a policeman demanding identification? Don’t you think it would be even better if the night played out the same, except alongside your local flatmates, who could help defuse the officer’s anger with their catalan?

There’s no reason why you can’t immerse yourself in both the culture and the party — but you’ll have to work for the former, while the latter is handed to you. The choice is yours.

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