I studied in the U.S. for six years, starting with my junior year of high school. Frankly, I was pretty clueless when I began my journey. There are so many things I wish I had known earlier. To help those of you who are just starting out make the best of your experience, I’m sharing my top study-abroad tips:
Don’t pack every single thing you own.
Unlike your usual vacation trip, which typically lasts a few weeks, studying abroad can last years. It makes sense for you to pack more, but don’t go overboard. You may think you’ll need ALL your clothes, but believe me, you won’t wear all of them. Pack only the things necessary for you to settle down for a few weeks. You can buy more seasonal clothing once you get to your university, along with things such as shampoo, laundry detergent, bedding, storage units and kitchen utensils.
Have a currency conversion app.
Eventually, you’ll get used to estimating the conversion between the U.S. dollar and your home currency. But until you have more experience, figuring out whether a $4.70 cup of coffee is expensive or not can be a bit tricky.
Have extra copies of your passport and I-20.
Your passport and Form I-20 (the “Certificate of Eligibility for Noninmmigrant Student Status,” which you will receive from your university) are two of the most important documents allowing you to legally stay in the U.S. If you lose them, you’ll have to go through the trouble of applying to replace them, which can take some time. So always store them somewhere safe and avoid taking them places. Unless the original is required, always use a copy.
Learn how to tip.
Tipping is common in U.S. restaurants, bars, taxis, hotels and other places that provide services. It shows your gratitude and generosity, and it usually makes up a large percentage of the salary of the employee providing the service. Generally, it’s best to leave a tip of at least 15 percent of the total bill. Though tipping is optional in the U.S., you should think of it as a must unless you want to be regarded with terms such as “jerk” or “cheap.”
Explore your surroundings.
I didn’t really explore Los Angeles and its surrounding areas until my junior year at the University of Southern California, and I regret not doing it earlier. There are so many things to do in LA, from attending art events and concerts to going to the beach and farmers’ markets to just enjoying the beautiful scenery. So start early to discover what the city or town you’re in has to offer. If you don’t have a car or driver’s license, try carpooling with friends, using taxi services such as Uber or Lyft, or taking public transportation.
Get involved with campus activities.
Back in high school, I dedicated the majority of my time to focusing on academics. When I got to college, I began to realize that being involved in various clubs and activities on campus is equally important. I made tons of new friends and learned so many useful skills by participating in those clubs. I even took on leadership roles because I wanted to contribute more.
Unsure how to start? Attend your college’s fair for clubs or organizations, which is usually held at the beginning of the school year. This is where active student organizations showcase what they have to offer and look to get new members.
One warning: Don’t overload yourself by joining too many clubs. I suggest you sign up for all the clubs that interest you first, then attend their first meetings/events before deciding which ones to commit to long-term.
Make friends with people from different backgrounds.
Don’t be afraid to say hi, introduce yourself, and start a conversation with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures. Learning about other cultures is an important part of the study-abroad experience. You may be tempted to stick with students from your home country, but it’s so much better to step out of your comfort zone and get to know people who can foster your cultural awareness and social knowledge.
Call your parents.
Seriously. Just pick up the phone to Skype or text your parents once in a while. They miss you a lot and want to know that you’re doing well. Download Whatsapp, Skype, Viber, Line, or other calling/messaging apps to help you stay in touch with those back home. The majority of these apps are free (or cost very little), so you can save a lot of money on phone bills.
By HUE LA
(Hue La, founder of studyabroadcorner.com, attended Occidental College and the University of Southern California.)