I am now nearing the end of my study abroad experience, returning to Albuquerque in mid July and have some time for reflection on my experience. I know for sure that this experience has been special and had a profound impact on me. What made this experience special? And if you decide to go abroad is there anything you can do to make your experience more meaningful? In this blog, I will answer these questions.

Image may contain: one or more people, people standing, sky, twilight, outdoor and nature

Overlooking the sunset at Parque Siete Tetas in Madrid Spain with my four friends.

So what exactly makes a study abroad experience special? Many students seem to think the partying, the drinking, the number of countries you go to, or the amount of famous landmarks you see. Certainly gazing upon the Eiffel Tower in Paris or marveling at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin can have its perks. Like my Italian roommate from Rome says “You have to see the Colosseo in Rome it is something unique in the whole world.” Even though touristic attractions like the Colosseum are definitely worth seeing and partying can be a great deal of fun they are not the most special thing during a study abroad. I can even tell you with a high level of certainty that the academics are also not the most important thing (sorry grandma).

First as a disclaimer I want to say that the most important thing during a study abroad is very subjective and varies from person to person. Perhaps the academics or the partying is in fact the most important thing for someone. However, the most important thing for me and many others I have met is the people you meet.

This is because the people you meet are what makes an experience unique for you. There are many millions of people who have seen the Eiffel Tower but only you have met and interacted with the specific set of people you have crossed paths with during your study abroad. It is often the most unique and distinctive defining aspect of your exchange experience.

Now some of you might already be short of breath or gasping for a bit of air because you have the same worry as I did before I studied abroad. Will I meet anyone/make good friends? Well first things first. When I say the people you meet abroad are what make your experience special, I don’t just mean the friends you make. The local people you communicate with, the fellow travelers you meet in hostels, the interactions you have with teachers, classmates and even storekeepers are all part of what makes your experience unique. In fact, don’t be too fixated about making friends, because in my experience you meet more people while you travel alone. Sometimes study abroad students are so worried about making and maintaining friends they cling to a few that they meet and become afraid to travel and meet new people. With that being said, the people you meet whether it be a fellow exchange student who turns out to be a good friend or an older individual who gives you life advice make your study abroad experience special.

Image may contain: 1 person, standing, ocean, sunglasses, sky, outdoor, water and nature

Picture of me after just completing seven days hiking in Northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago. I embarked on this journey alone but made so many unexpected friends.

So to answer the second question of what can you do to make your study abroad experience special? Well, you can improve your chances of having meaningful interactions with other people. I recommend five things:

  • Don’t be afraid to travel alone: I already explained this a bit above but just remember that you meet a wider variety of people when you are alone.
  • Live with people from a different country than you: Even though the comfort and idea of living with someone from your home university is extremely tempting. I really recommend steering clear of it. I had a much more unique and special experience in Estonia living with roommates from different countries. (Bonus! Then you can visit them in their home countries after your school is done) Also, I feel like it is very important to mention in this section that you should not study abroad with a friend from home! This will limit the people you meet. Instead if you have a friend pick different study abroad locations but go abroad during the same time. Maybe you can even visit each other in the other’s study abroad location!
  • Explore: This doesn’t necessarily mean hacking through the dense jungle with a machete searching for ancient artifacts, it can also mean to go outside from studying in your apartment and finding a local coffee shop to study at. It means to go outside of your comfort zone and increase the probability of having new experiences and interactions.
  • Study abroad for one year: First I went to the study abroad office and said I wanted to study abroad for two weeks. Then I went to the study abroad office and said I wanted to study abroad for one semester. Then I finally decided on a year and have no regrets. The most common regret of many of my companions is that they only went abroad for one semester (which is actually the most common amount of time to go abroad for). Going for a year opens up a myriad of possibilities which allow you to meet more people and form deeper connections with people you already know.

Overall, your first step is deciding to study abroad! After that you can start thinking about making meaningful and personal connections during your experience whether it be romantic relationships, friendships, or merely an exchange at a coffee shop.

Let me know if you have any questions (thex128@unm.edu) and thanks for reading!

My friend Carlos from Atlanta and I in the Reina Sofia art museum in Madrid. And yes you can still be friends with other Americans.

My friend Carlos from Atlanta and I in the Reina Sofia art museum in Madrid. And yes you can still be friends with other Americans.