Most of us think of the romance of travel and study abroad – the exotic landscapes, meeting new people, embarking on a marvelous adventure. And it can and should be a life changing experience full of wonderful memories. But ensuring a memorable and positive experience requires good planning, good judgment and smart choices, and the staff and peer leaders at the Reves Center for International Studies do all they can to see that students and their families have a great outcome.
Some 130 students braved a cold, rainy fall last Sunday afternoon to attend their orientation session in preparation for their study abroad in the spring. The Reves Center holds these sessions before each semester and summer session to help students plan for everything from what to pack, what paperwork to fill out, and the safest way to carry and keep passports and money, to how to pick up on cultural cues and ask for a vegan meal. It could have been a long, tedious afternoon, but instead the Reves staff and student volunteers kept the pace quick, upbeat and full of humor… and snacks. Who says a Reese’s cup can’t motivate class participation?
Students who have recently returned from their study abroad shared advice and insights and interspersed advice on making sure to get your visa (if necessary) and power of attorney before leaving with good humored reminders like look both ways before crossing the street (“In Italy, signs are suggestions.”) They stressed the importance of creating a communication plan, figuring out not only how but how often they’re going to contact family at home, and why sticking to the schedule means families won’t worry.
They also talked about intangible aspects, things they’ve learned would make the experience more meaningful. One recently-returned student shared that her biggest regret was not setting goals for herself. Students were advised to create two academic and two personal goals before setting off on their adventure.
Of course a large part of the afternoon was spent talking about what to expect in terms of culture shock, both at the beginning of the adventure and upon returning home. To illustrate how difficult it can be to pick up on non-verbal communication with people from other cultures, the students did a group exercise where they had to figure out what their partner’s issues or reactions said about themselves and their culture – avoiding looking someone directly in the eye, for instance, talking rapidly or having an aversion to hugging a stranger.
In addition to the main program, students scattered to various classrooms to meet in small groups based on their destination. They were able to ask their own questions, get advice, and learn more specifically about what they could expect, whether in Tunisia or Seville.
Nothing was sugar-coated. Studying in a different country means being faced with a lot of changes, a brand new environment and the unknown. What was clear throughout the day, was that these students will have a strong, smart support network of faculty and staff at home and abroad at every point along their journeys. As Theresa Johansson, Assistant Director for Study Abroad at the Reves Center noted at the end of the session, “You are a representative of your country and your school as soon as you step off the plane. This will be an opportunity to be your best self.”