Studying abroad is an exciting time, and throws many students out of their comfort zones. Indeed, that's what a lot of students seek when choosing to study abroad—totally new cultures, experiences, and languages that will challenge them to grow educationally, personally, and even professionally. But with all the planning you put into your program, like choosing a destination, securing funding, finding housing, and selecting courses, one factor is often overlooked. How will you make friends?
Not all study abroad programs are the same. While some allow you to travel with a group of students from your home college, on others, you may be the only person from your country at your host college. Sometimes making friends will require little effort, and you may already know other students from home. But in that case, you should also consider whether that's right for you. Do you really want to travel halfway around the world to hang out with people from home? Maybe the answer is yes. If it's not, you'll need to have tactics in place to help you make friends while studying abroad.
In this article we'll cover:
Study abroad opportunities are very diverse. Here are a few examples:
The social environments and opportunities for making friends will be very different in each of these contexts. During a summer school, language intensive, field trip, or studying at an American university, you'll likely interact with other American and international students. Opportunities to meet and socialize with local students may be limited, or something that you have to go out of your way to find.
Alternatively, if you spend a semester, a full year, or your entire degree studying abroad, you're likely to have more opportunities to meet locals. You'll probably be taking classes with local students, especially if you're studying abroad in another English-speaking country. You may also be living alongside them in dorms and independent housing.
There's nothing inherently wrong with only hanging out with other Americans or international students, and sometimes this is the easiest and most comfortable way of socializing. In an unfamiliar atmosphere, it can be comforting to have friends who understand your language, customs, and what life is like back home. Since many study abroad participants want to meet local students, it's essential to be aware that this sometimes takes a bit of effort.
You may also get the chance to hang out with other international students from a different country to your own, and you should seek out these opportunities. Some study abroad programs welcome students from all over the world. While making friends with local students can be challenging, forming friendships with other international students—whether they're Finnish, South African, Thai, or otherwise—may feel more comfortable because they're in a similar situation to you.
Just as it's important to have friends at home, it's nice to have friends while studying abroad, too. Friends may help ease the effects of culture shock, homesickness, or other health issues. They may also help you settle in and understand a different cultural context, and they are people you can explore your new environment with. While studying abroad in Europe, for example, you may come across many opportunities to travel to a neighboring country, which can be easier and more fun with friends.
Your education isn't limited to what you learn in the classroom—a well-rounded education includes getting to know and understand a diverse range of people. This is probably one of the reasons you chose to study abroad in the first place, so make the most of this opportunity.
Depending on the kind of study abroad program you've signed up for, you may have opportunities to meet the people you'll be studying abroad with before leaving home. If you're participating in a language program, you may well be studying alongside classmates from the college or university you're enrolled in at home. Even if you're not friends with them, it's worth making an effort to get to know them before you're thrown into a new destination together.
Some colleges offer direct exchange programs where you "switch" places with a foreign student for a semester or a year. It's not uncommon for these programs to encourage you to meet students from your destination before your program starts. For example, if you're planning to study in Sweden in the second semester in 2020, you might be able to meet Swedish exchange students at your college in the first semester of 2020. If your college has a study abroad office, ask about this. Even if they don't already have opportunities in place for you to meet, they might be encouraged to do so if you ask. And at the very least, they may be able to put you in touch.
Few students would say that it's their wish to socialize only with students from home while studying in a foreign country, yet this is the reality in many cases. It's easy to hang out with people who share your language, habits, and cultural understandings. Plus, local students may already be preoccupied with their friend groups and are uninterested in hanging out with students who will leave again in a few months.
However, many local students are interested in forming relationships with international students; you just have to tap into the right networks. Doing so is usually more manageable if you're staying somewhere for a semester or more since extended programs naturally provide more opportunities for getting involved in ordinary student activities.
Introverted or shy students may find it a bit more challenging to make new friends while studying abroad than more outgoing students. On the other hand, they may not feel the need for a lot of friends and may be more content exploring new places on their own and spending time alone. Like any personality type, it's still essential for introverts to have a support network while studying abroad.
Dating while studying abroad is an entirely personal choice that only you can make for yourself. Whether you're looking for something serious and long-lasting or just for fun, the key is communication.
Studying abroad can be a formative experience, and if you've spent time facing the challenges of a foreign culture with new friends, lasting bonds can happen. It can be upsetting to say goodbye, and you may even withstand reverse culture shock returning home. Perhaps your old friends don't "get" you like they used to. Or maybe they seem uninterested in hearing the incredible stories you want to share with them about your experience. In these cases, it's understandable that you'll miss your study abroad friends. Fortunately, it's easy to reconnect, with all kinds of social media and messenger apps at hand.
Your study abroad experience may have sparked or strengthened your love of travel, or love of a particular place. If you make friends with locals, you can make plans to visit them again. If you made friends with other international students or even students from a different part of your home country, you'll have friends around the world to drop in on.
But, despite best intentions, it's normal for friends to drift apart under any circumstances, let alone when you factor physical distance into the mix. Perhaps you'll form a strong friendship during your study abroad program that fades after you return home. This situation can be upsetting but is just a fact of life. Treasure the good times, and become comfortable with letting things go. This may be one of the many valuable lessons you gain from studying abroad.
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