The Biggest Mistake I Almost Made as a Study Abroad Student

Guest Post by Emily Livermore

One of the most valuable experiences you can have during your university experience is studying abroad. In my opinion, the opportunity to immerse yourself in another culture while also continuing your studies is one of the best things you can do to expand your education and broaden your global perspective. But what you get out of a study abroad experience is largely up to you as a student.

About two months into my South African semester abroad at University of Cape Town, I was sitting in a bar with one of my closest friends. We were half-way through our Black Labels watching a T20 cricket match when he leaned in and said, “I feel like I’m the only South African here.” I looked around and started to listen. Sure enough, most of the accents were foreign. I easily picked up on some American accents near us due to my personal attention bias, but then began to notice that there were three distinctive groups around us: American, French, and Belgian. Most of the energy in the bar was made up of people exclusively interacting with individuals from their own country. I talked to a couple of the Americans and one Belgian guy later in the evening and sure enough, they were all foreign exchange students.

Studying abroad is increasing in popularity every year, but that means it’s easier than ever to spend all your time abroad with people from back home. In my Cape Town program, there were 12 students from my home university alone, University of Southern California (USC), and well over 100 American students in total. Having so many peers from home means you have to put in some work to actually meet people from the local context.

Getting outside your comfort zone and distancing yourself from other students from home is easier said than done. I came to Cape Town knowing the risk of getting sucked into a social network made up of people from USC and other US universities. This awareness made me all the more determined to do the opposite and really immerse myself with a South African social network. Yet, my first six weeks in Cape Town were almost exclusively spent exploring the city with other American students.

This wasn’t how I planned it. I’ve had the chance to travel all over the world with my family and I was determined to be immersed in the world of South Africa, but I wasn’t. What was I doing wrong?

When you’re thrown into an unfamiliar environment, it’s disorienting in so many ways. Being away from home and in a different country wasn’t new to me. But dealing with a completely different approach to registering for classes, getting textbooks, preparing for exams meant I had to adjust most everything about my way of doing university. After spending all day doing that, it was natural to want to switch on auto-pilot and grab drinks with someone that not only talks like me but thinks like me because of a shared cultural background. As an abroad student, spending time with people from home can be necessary for survival, especially in the first month. You can process cultural differences together and take a break from the constant unfamiliarity. But don’t stop there.

The important thing is to make sure your network isn’t exclusively people of your same nationality. Join societies, form study groups, and start conversations with people wherever you go. The common thread through all of these things is initiation. Local students are not looking to meet you. If you want to make your study abroad experience worth it, you have to take the initiative to create a diverse social network for yourself…easier said than done, but not impossible.

Enhancing a study abroad experience is not all that different from enhancing a business trip overseas or even a vacation. Next time you’re abroad, make it a point to initiate something with a local, whether it’s an invitation to a meal or a simple conversation and watch how it enriches your trip.


This article adapted from one originally published by The Livermore Lens, a travel insight blog created by Emily Livermore.

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