Perks, Pitfalls and Roller Coasters – Tips for Studying Abroad

By Julia Nitz, Global Management Student in TRSM

Living the exchange student lifestyle in Frankfurt, Germany, was an indescribable experience, saturated with joy, adventures and travels. But along with the blissful, memorable moments came mistakes and chaotic situations that simultaneously turned out to be great learning experiences.After embracing the perks and pitfalls of studying abroad, here are my top recommendations for anyone preparing to venture upon the exchange journey.

Pack Light- But not too light

Having traveled a fair bit before going on exchange, packing light seemed like a wise choice. I know now that there is a big difference between packing for a month of travelling and relocating to another continent for a year.

I got to Germany with a medium size suitcase and a backpack full of fall and winter clothing. With a September departure date, the thought of warmer months faded with preparation for the upcoming winter. But once Frankfurt’s extreme heat wave came around in July, my wardrobe needed some new additions. This wasn’t necessarily bad news, but many of the purchases could have been avoided as I bought items similar to those that I had waiting at home. I ended up leaving with an extra suitcase worth of clothing that I had accumulated throughout the year.

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My Tip : Make sure your packing list takes into consideration the length of time you will be away and the weather you will experience.  Anticipate that you will inevitably make purchases there. When they say pack light, it means don’t bring every little thing, but enough for you to feel comfortable going about your daily life. If you do have additional luggage returning home, make sure to consider and plan out the associated costs with that extra suitcase.

Say Hello to Culture Shock

Before going to Germany, I had a narrow understanding of culture shock. I perceived it as a shock or feeling of unfamiliarity towards the values and traditions of another culture. Although it does certainly entail that, culture shock also includes the experience and emotions caused by moving to a new and unfamiliar place. It encompasses balancing the process of adjusting to a new place, combined with feelings of missing home. This may cause excitement, interest, frustration, depression, disorientation and more (read about culture shock here). In other words an emotional rollercoaster.

Adjusting to not having my family and friends around took time. As I learned my way around the city, my feelings of disorientation faded, especially once I got a hang of navigating the streets and understanding the transit system. Within a few weeks, I was able to overcome the initial shock of my move and make new friends, which allowed me to step off my seemingly never-ending emotional roller-coaster.

The Moving Abroad Rollercoaster

My Tip: Everyone experiences culture shock in different ways. Regardless of whether you feel it less than someone else, it’s always good to understand and acknowledge it. Know that whatever you may be feeling, culture shock is a common phenomenon when moving to a new place. Giving yourself a few laid-back days may help ease the transition. As well, try to familiarize with the host culture through local activities such as exploring museums, festivals, etc.

Get Outside of the Exchange Environment

Depending on the university you will be studying at, you may have more free time than expected. At the beginning of my exchange, I was a little thrown off and confused by this. The abundance of free time and lack of structure fed into my initial, culture shock disorientation. About a month in, I decided to contact a volleyball club in a nearby city and asked to attend one of their training’s. This was definitely outside of my comfort zone – I didn’t speak the language, knew no one, and doubted if I was at their level of play. After overcoming my fears and attending one of the sessions, I set up an agreement with the team to attend practices  twice a week. This enriched my overall experience as I made friends outside of the exchange students that gave me a different perspective on local, everyday life in Germany.

My Tip: Whatever interest or hobbies you have –  sports, photography, music, or anything else – use it as an opportunity to meet locals and have fun. Although you may be uncomfortable at first, it will allow you to experience the life and culture of your exchange city in a way that only going to class won’t provide.

Try to Learn the Language

The fact that almost all locals spoke English was an advantage in the beginning, but it also meant that I rarely found myself in situations with non-English speakers. Taking initiative to try and speak German became a challenge. Why struggle when I could easily communicate in a language I’m actually fluent in?

After months of studying, I finally had enough German knowledge to hold a very basic conversation. Despite feeling tongue-tied and embarrassed due to my limited vocabulary and all but flawless grammar, I accepted that making mistakes was a part of the learning process. In moments when it would have been easier to speak English, I tried my best to stick to German as long as there was an understanding from both sides.  

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My Tip: Although it is difficult to grasp a language in a short period of time (especially if it’s just one semester), I highly recommend learning words and phrases for daily errands, such as shopping at grocery stores and ordering at restaurants. Yes, it is intimidating and scary, but you will develop a better understanding of cultural norms when you can communicate in the native language. From personal experience, most people are respectful, supportive and appreciative of a foreigner making an effort to adopt their language.

Not Everything Will Go Perfectly

At the beginning of my exchange, I would get upset over the little screw ups.  Spending more money than anticipated or making spontaneous choices that led to less than amazing outcomes often left me with feelings of regret. However, it’s inevitable that mistakes will be made! You might even get stuck in a few sticky situations, but it’s all part of the package when you move to a new place.  

My Tip: Things may seem chaotic and confusing but with time you will learn the best ways to navigate the pitfalls. Take it easy, account for the culture shock you might be experiencing, and learn from your mistakes. You won’t always be able to avoid them, but staying informed and doing a little bit of research may help in choosing the best alternatives.  

Prepare for Reverse Culture Shock

Leaving Frankfurt was one of the most difficult things about my exchange. I fell in love with the city, the (slightly) warmer climate, and the German culture. Adjusting to living with my parents again, the commuter lifestyle and the cold weather definitely posed a new challenge for me.

Something that helped me was taking the viewpoint of a newcomer to Toronto. This perspective was made easier as I made friends with the incoming exchange students at Ryerson through RISEXC, the student exchange group. Their energy and excitement towards the city fueled me with positive emotions and gave way to new inspirations.

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My Tip: It is important to be patient and know that it’s normal to experience reverse culture shock. With that in mind, don’t hold back on reaching out to someone to talk about it or refer to professional help.  

Based on personal experience, setting up exciting events and activities upon returning is a useful tactic.Maybe a small trip with friends to help reconnect and explore the undiscovered parts of the area around?

Although there are a handful of general recommendations that can be made for future exchange students, everyone’s experience will vary based on factors such as location, personal preferences etc. Be prepared, stay informed, and embrace your time abroad while it lasts!

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