Studying Abroad: Expectations Vs. Reality

by Rachel Simon

If you'd asked me back in the summer what I expected my study abroad experience would be like, this is probably what I'd say: I'd spend my days exploring every corner of Prague, eating delicious food, going out all the time, bonding with locals, occasionally going to class, and, on weekends, traveling across Europe. Sounds too good to be true, right? That's because it is. Nearly two months into my semester in Prague, I can attest that while many of those dreams have come to fruition — and that my time here overall is fantastic — the reality of studying abroad is quite different than what I'd expected. Not that that's such a bad thing.

Because while there are some things I definitely wish were true about studying abroad that aren't (comfy dorm room beds? Yeah, right), having so many unexpected experiences here has, by and large, been great. Living in Prague may not be what I anticipated, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. Still, I can't deny that it would've been nice to know, going in, a bit more about what spending a semester in Europe is actually like. For those planning their own future semesters overseas, here's my guide to what you might think studying abroad is going to be like versus what it actually is. Sure, it's different for everyone — but there are some commonalities.

Expectation: I'll be doing exciting and adventurous new things every single day

Reality: Let's be real: traveling is exhausting. Even when you're just vacationing for a weekend, waking up at eight to spend the next twelve hours walking through a city, climbing buildings, and barely stopping to rest takes a toll. Doing that for three months straight? No way. Definitely make frequent time to get up early and explore the city, but the occasional day of Netflix and pajamas in bed is perfectly fine, too.

Expectation: My classes won't matter

Reality: Yeah... this is pretty accurate. Sure, I have to go to class and write a handful of "research papers" (aka two-page essays where the heading takes up half the space) throughout the semester, but otherwise, school here is not exactly demanding. Plus, my grades don't even transfer back to my home university, so any effort I do put in doesn't technically matter. Let's just say spring semester's going to be a shock.

Expectation: I'll travel everywhere, all of the time

Reality: You'll travel some places, some of the time. Visiting other countries is expensive, not to mention time-consuming; as cool as it is to see plenty of Europe while I'm here, I also want a good amount of time to get to know Prague. So far, I think I've found a good balance between traveling and staying put, but it took a lot of planning — and, even with budget airlines and hostel housing, way more money than I originally expected.

Expectation: I'm going to meet people from all over the world, including, possibly, the love of my life

Reality: This is certainly possible, but it takes far more effort than I would've thought. My dorm and classes are full of kids from my program, with only a handful from elsewhere, so the people I interact with on a daily basis are typically American. To meet students from other countries, you have to go to more "local" bars or make friends with your few foreign classmates — that is, it's doable, but not the immediate, effortless connections I figured would be the case. And if you do meet someone romantically, chances are it's going to be more of a temporary fling.

Expectation: I'll go out all the time and drink lots of beer

Reality: You will go out all the time and drink lots of beer. If you're in a cheap city like Prague, you'll happily get used to $1 drinks, but if you're somewhere like London or Paris, get ready to see either your nights out or contents of your wallet dwindle by the end of the semester.

Expectation: I'll need everything I packed

Reality: If you're like me, you'll use approximately one-third of the things you packed. Fancy dresses? High heels? That laptop lock I really didn't think was necessary but the guy at the Apple Store told me I should bring? They haven't left my suitcase since the day I moved in. Bring the essentials (winter coat, rain jacket, that favorite book you'll read on the train), but leave the rest at home; they'll just take up space in your bags you're going to need for souvenirs.

Expectation: I won't gain weight here, because I'll be walking all the time.

Reality: Ha ha ha ha ha. This is the lie all study abroad students tell themselves, and not a single one of them has seen it come true. Sure, you'll walk a lot, and, if you have the motivation, you can run or go to the gym. But small bits of exercise don't make up all the massive and frequent consumption of pasta dinners, late night burritos, and enormous bottles of wine. Do yourself a favor, though, and stop worrying about it; you have next semester, when you're not surrounded by Europe's best food, to get back into shape.

Expectation: I'll never want to come back to the U.S.

Reality: Actually, you will — although that doesn't mean you'll be homesick the entire time you're away. Three months is a long time to be out of the country and away from the family, friends, and grocery store products you know and love. It's natural that, especially towards the end of the semester, you're going to have some American cravings, and, if only for a few minutes, wish that you were back home in the land of peanut butter and Chipotle. As long as your entire semester isn't spend longing for America, it's totally okay to miss it every now and then, and even look forward to boarding that plane back home — just make sure you make the most of your time abroad until that day comes.

Image: Columbia Pictures; Tumblr (8)