I’m an optimizer. I like to get bang for my buck, save time, be efficient, and more or less optimize my life.
Sometimes I optimize my life in minor ways: If I know I need to return a book that is 400 feet west of my desk and I have a meeting near the book return in 30 minutes, I will wait to return my book until I go to the meeting.
Sometimes I optimize my life in major ways: When I had the opportunity to live in a foreign country when I was 20 years old, I took it. I wanted to optimize my college experience.
When the Leader of Visitor Experience at Credit Card Insider reached out to me to write a blog post on how students can optimize their study abroad experience, I felt I had quite a few things to say about this topic. Here’s the Tarzan list on how to maximize (both financially and otherwise) studying abroad:
- For goodness sake, don’t go to Europe. Europe is great; I love Europe. But take the path less beaten. It’s adventurous, exciting, and typically, so much cheaper. I studied abroad in Thailand (after getting rejected from my first choice: Europe!), and so many good things came of that:
- I had wild adventures, that included sneaking onto an airplane in Indonesia and peeing on myself on a non-Western style toilet.
- I randomly got a Thai scholarship because no one at my school studied abroad in Thailand (they all went to Europe!), making the scholarship less competitive. That scholarship ended up paying for a good chunk of my travel while I was in SouthEast Asia. Also, it paid for my medical fees when I crashed a motorbike in rural Thailand.
- Don’t ride motorbikes in rural foreign countries. Trust me on this one. Every Monday, a new exchange student would come to school with bandages from a motorbike accident.
- Get a credit card with no foreign exchange fees. Sort it out before you leave.
- Don’t spend 1/2 a day in Bangkok sorting out your new Citibank credit card with Thai Citi employees, in Thai, when you don’t speak Thai.
- If you don’t heed the former advice, and end up using your debit card that charges you every time you go to the ATM, find an ATM that lets you retrieve 2x more cash than other ATMs, and then hide that money under your mattress. Try not to get robbed.
- Be vigilant. Have fun and be relaxed, but always keep an eye out for an opportunistic robber looking for an easy target. Keep valuables locked in yourhostel/apt, or if they are on your person, keep it in front pocket with your hands in your pocket.
- Don’t let yourself get robbed 2 days into your 2 week post-final travels, when you just got your rent deposit in cash….still bitter about that one.
- Find an apartment, understand a few words in the local language and know what the local currency is…BEFORE you leave.
- I did all of this at 3:30 in the morning, alone in a foreign country for the first time. I then promptly curled up in fetal position and lamented my terrible life decisions. The next day, I dried my tears and proceeded to have the best study abroad experience ever. But if you want to avoid fetal position and a few shed tears, sort out your affairs while people still speak English and understand the words coming out of your mouth.
- Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
- I have an irrational fear of bugs. While in Thailand, I ate a fried grasshopper (not bad!), a maggot (I was feeling arrogant after the grasshopper; I instantly spit the maggot out), chicken claws, unknown soups with coagulated blood, and so many other things I never identified. I just pointed to things and then I put them in my mouth.
- Make friends with everybody. Unless you get a sense they want to rob you.
- Do a few things to make you feel more of a local and less of a foreigner. Join a local gym or club at your university, buy some groceries and lightly decorate your apartment; do what you need to do to set up shop and feel at home.
And above all other things, my one piece of advice is: wear sunscreen.