David Strittmatter

Semester abroad – what to know before you go

My semester abroad is about to end. Reflecting on the past months, I contemplated what I learned during this time and what I would have done differently with the knowledge I have today.

Quite frankly, there is a lot I could have done much better with proper planning and executing. Nevertheless, I do not regret anything. I may have missed a few chances, but this way also great things came up. For instance, I have always wanted to go to Hawaii and planned to go there during Thanksgiving break. Due to procrastination, lack of focus and improper execution, I abandoned this plan though. This allowed me, however, to accept the invitation of my friends to come with them to celebrate Thanksgiving the American way – one of my top 3 experiences in the US.

In this article, I want to share what I would have known before I went abroad. In case you have a semester abroad coming up and want to make the most out of it – and let not all things take their course, this will give you a better understanding of what you can and should expect from your semester abroad. With this, let us jump right into the article.

Improvement of your foreign language does not come without effort

Before I came to the US, I thought that I can easily improve my English skills. Just being abroad, though, will not make you improve your foreign language skills.

There are many obstacles that will prevent you from improving. First and foremost, many exchange students stay in their bubble. They spent the most time with people speaking their language.

Secondly, most people do not put in the effort to get to know locals and foster friendships with them. Speaking with international students might help you to speak a foreign language you both can speak more fluently, however, learning grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and the native everyday language can almost only be done with locals.

If you really want to improve your foreign language skills, I recommend you to consider the following three requirements which helped me to progress most quickly:

  • Get in touch with locals (see my next advice)
  • Ask your friends to correct your grammar and pronunciation
  • When you do not know a word, write it down, look it up and learn how to use and pronounce it
  • Do not be shy to ask a native speaker when you need help to express yourself

Developing and fostering a good relationship with locals is not easy

Getting in touch with locals is not hard. You can easily find locals at your school, local events and parties. However, as many people will be able to verify, getting friends is really hard. When you go abroad, most locals already have their circle of friends. Moreover, being fluent in a language and being capable of having enjoyable conversations are two different pairs of shoes.

It took me plenty of approaches and text messages until I could hang out the first time with an American and got invited to their parties. And even after meeting a few times, I still had to take the initiative.

So, if you plan to dive deep into the foreign culture and want to build friendships with locals, you should be aware that this requires effort and persistence. Be open and not afraid of locals, tell them that you are new in town and want to get to know people. Be nice and not disappointed when they do not show interest. Stay authentic and search for people you are really interested in. Take the initiative, ask them if they want to hang out, workout with you, have lunch or dinner, meet to drink a coffee…

It might take some time, but eventually, it will work out. The benefits are definitely worth it.

Traveling – make the most out of your trips

During my time in the US, I went on a journey many times. Whether I went out in nature or explored cities, traveling is one of the greatest things I have ever done. In the first weeks, I visited numerous cities (e. g. LA, Vegas, Vancouver, San Francisco) and went to various national parks (Grand Canyon, Antelope Canyon, Joshua Tree, Mohave Desert, …). I made some key learnings while I made these trips.

First of all, do research and brainstorm about the places you want to go to. The earlier the better. Ask friends and other people for recommendations.

Secondly, plan your trips early. Where exactly do you want to go? When do you have time? Do you want to make the trip alone or with others?

Thirdly, take concrete action. Book/rent your transportation, make a reservation for your accommodation, make a time table for your trip.

When I had not had traveled so much at the beginning of my time in California, I might have missed a lot of great trips. Midterm, I temporarily lost my motivation to execute. As a result, I couldn’t get it together to plan my trip to Hawaii and forfeited this opportunity.

Execution is key. Many people have great plans and lots of motivation. Yet, failure is usually the result of a lack of taking action and decision making.

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