My tips to enhance your experience abroad

My name is Giuseppe Race, I am from Italy and I was a student at Tulane University for a five-month exchange during the spring of 2019. Prior to this experience, I studied at UCLA for a summer term, and between my bachelor’s and my master’s degree, I decided to take a gap year during which I traveled in the USA for three months and lived in Melbourne, Australia, for one year.

I also took my bachelor’s and master’s in two different cities in Italy (Naples and Bologna, respectively), so during the six years of my higher education, I lived in five different cities, and during my master’s I spent no more than six months at a time in the same place. While every experience and person is different, I believe that there are some good lessons I learned along the way that can help others make the most of their experience abroad.

Theoretical approach and a high degree of abstraction, a great empowering tool.

Since we are mainly talking about university exchanges, let’s start by addressing the academics. Here in the United States, business is often thought about in a practical fashion while in Europe, we have a much more theoretical approach.

Now there are pros and cons to this. First off, when you go to Europe, you may struggle a little in the beginning if you select subjects with a very high level of abstraction. In order to be happy with your experience, consider that, if you have a really bad relationship with math and algebra or huge manuals, you may need to put some effort in meeting the professors’ expectations in the beginning. Also, it is common that instead of having many different mid-term exams, the instructor wants you to be able to deal with all the course material at the end of the semester. This means that you will go through a long period of lectures and then you will be tested at the end of that period with one comprehensive exam. If you have some particular concerns and you aim to take advantage of the overall experience instead of the coursework alone, consider balancing your course schedule to take this into account.

A great pro is that if you are prone to accept a challenge, you can really benefit from this kind of coursework since it’s a great complement to what is common in the United States, and being exposed to different ways to tackle a subject can always be beneficial in the long term.

International student? Don’t panic!

Another difference is that the professors are generally well aware of the unique situation of international students. This means that most of the time you can expect some flexibility (depending on the school you go to). It really depends on the instructor, but in my experience if you struggle with an exam you can always talk to the instructors and they will probably adjust their expectations based on your specific situation.

The world is becoming global, you have to be as well.

Especially in management but really in every field, you will likely interact with different people from different countries in your future life, and that means that you will have an advantage if you are able to relate to different cultures. I can say that living in Australia, the United States and Europe helped me in tons of situations both professionally and personally. University exchanges are a great framework to interact with different culture. First, because they happen at early stages in your life and are often very impactful, and second, because they give you the opportunity to interact with different kinds of people and professionals which is not very common when you just travel for pleasure or work. Here at Tulane I experienced an incredibly culturally rich environment populated with students from all different nationalities and a really diverse faculty. The university pays great attention in promoting this multiculturalism. Join the Global Café at the Lavin-Bernick Center if you have the chance; it is a great way to engage with different perspectives and make new friends!

The journey makes the difference.

When you travel and develop experiences, things become easier. While traveling you are exposed to new challenges every day, everything from finding a house or buying groceries to being able to independently work or study, make new friends or make life-changing decisions while far from family and friends. Your comfort zone will be pushed every day, and at the end of the journey you will find yourself capable of facing your previous life in a much more effective way.

Having a study abroad experience will also positively impact your CV.I believe that it is shifting from being a bonus to a must-have feature. At the end of the day what you really bring home are the new skills, experiences, network and perspectives you acquired while traveling, so be hungry and try to live them fully.

New language, new opportunity

When making friends and creating relationships, there is something strange that happens when the people that we are talking with are able to understand our native language and to speak even just some of it. It is a great sign that you are aware of the environment you are in and make an effort to learn more about it. You can expect many people to talk in English in Europe, so you will probably find it easy to perform all the tasks that you need at the beginning but don’t let the comfort get in the way of taking a great opportunity. Learning a new language is an endless resource of richness that not only will make your experience amazing but will also help broaden your perspective.

The benefit of not being a tourist

I lived for one year in Australia and one cumulative year in the United States, and what I can say is that there is a huge difference between visiting a place and living there. This difference lies in the diverse perspectives that you develop engaging in the local habits.

In order to unlock this benefit you need some basic ingredients:

1) Make friends

They’re going to be the key to advance in your journey, the steroids for your discoveries and experiences. International students tend to stick together and it can be a huge deterrent from engaging in the local life. Since we are creatures of habit and it’s hard to fight it, my suggestion is to avoid going somewhere with friends. If you don’t feel like traveling alone or you just can’t, then try to be conscious about it. Check often if you’re spending time only with people that you already know.

While here at Tulane, I met two girls playing on the lacrosse team, Julie and Allie. They quickly became good friends, and thanks to them, my perception of New Orleans changed completely. I discovered new interesting places far from campus (they took me to “the Fly” for the first time) and started to be invited to many parties and events that were not even on my radar before. One night we ended up at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome thanks to their sorority formal party, something that would have never happened if I kept spending time with people that I already knew.

2) Location makes the difference

This is a hard one because it is strongly correlated with the budget, even if the purchasing power of the US dollar is strong pretty much everywhere else so you shouldn’t find much trouble. It is hard to know what the best locations to live are before going to a place. Research a lot and, if you can, don’t compromise too much. Again, we’re creatures of habit, and you can end up having an average experience due to logistical issues like living too far from the center or the places where people hang out. Also, the atmosphere that you are exposed to everyday plays a huge role on your mood and living in a place that reflects your expectations helps a lot with that.

Here in New Orleans, I found a nice apartment on Palmer Avenue. It is a five-minute walk from campus and it allowed me to take advantage of all the facilities that the university offered. I’ve been also able to have all my meals at home almost every day, which had a huge positive impact on my budget.

Location can be tricky too. One of our friends found a room downtown, close to the French Quarter, and while at the beginning we all were envious since we believed that he would have been able to have much more fun, after a while we all started to realize that even if there are a lot of activities downtown, our daily life was concentrated around campus and so was most of the entertainment. He ended up feeling isolated most of the time. The moral of the story is that there is no such thing as a “perfect” location, so you need to find a location that fits your needs and routines.

3) Habits, throw something new in the equation

Another great way to engage with the place and to expand your perspective is to try some new things that are strongly related to the place you go to. For example, when I studied at UCLA, I decided to start surfing and it really helped me to make new friends and understand the places that the locals prefer and why.Plus, it was a lot of fun! When I lived in Colorado, I started to mountain bike and in Australia I have been kayaking and paddle boarding. The benefit of those things are really unpredictable.You can make new friends, learn new things or discover new places even when you try to purchase a surfboard on Craigslist.

Being in the city of music and inspired by the jazz shows on Frenchman Street, I decided to start playing guitar again while I was here. It has been an amazing idea.I was able to find a used guitar that has been a great social catalyst on many occasions. Another thing that I started doing was going to NBA games. I’ve never been a fan and I honestly didn’t understand much at the beginning, but we liked the atmosphere and it seemed like a really American thing to try. At the end of the semester, we ended up going to seven NBA games and being strong supporters of the Pelicans. It made us feel much more in tune with the city!

Manage your mood consciously

Studying abroad is full of stimuli and has a lot of ups and downs. Some day you will feel great and enthusiastic and some others you may feel nostalgic and out of place. No matter how strong you are, you will likely experience some moody days. My suggestion for this is to be kind to yourself. For me, it worked in a funky way. I spent periods of up to four months without hearing from my family or friends just because I wanted to deep dive in the reality around, but then I realized that it was completely unneeded. Keep in touch with your friends and family,. It will help you to face every challenge with happiness and courage. Another great tool that I found helpful is trying to somehow document your experience. You don’t need to become a YouTuber or a professional Instagrammer, but spending some time taking pictures that you want to show to people back home or figuring out a way that you want to narrate your experience once you’re back can definitely help to organize your feelings towards it. We are social creatures and we do what we do mainly to share it with others or at least based on how others respond to us, so it’s healthy and nice to keep that in the equation somehow.

A philosophic moment

At the end of the day, going really far from home and being able to achieve your goals is an endless source of liberation and growth. When you are surrounded by your family, friends and community in general, you benefit from a lot of help. I’m not saying that this is wrong, but to prove yourself able to achieve your goals without that support system will give you great confidence and new abilities.

Disclaimer: These are thoughts based on my previous abroad experiences. They can be very personal and arbitrary, so please reach out to me with any questions at racegiuseppe@gmail.com

Giuseppe Race was a spring 2019 exchange student from University of Bologna in Italy.