University of Wisconsin–Madison

Tips for future #badgersabroad

As I flew into the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport three weeks ago, at the end of a three-flight/22-hour journey, I felt like I was flying into a jungle. I was so used to the brown and mountainous desert of northern Chile that flat Minnesota seemed like a different planet. Although I wasn’t expecting it, seeing the green ocean of corn and soybean fields for miles and miles from up in the airplane gave me a feeling ALMOST like the wonder-and-excitement-and-what-is-this-place-filled feeling I had when I first landed in Arica in February.

My parents and best friend met me at the airport (with an adorable sign asserting that “Minnesota missed Megs”), and we all went out for sushi in Minneapolis.

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We were all so loud and obnoxious in the shuttle bus to the car that I almost felt bad for being THOSE people slash dumb Americans, but then I didn’t care because guess what – everyone else talks obnoxiously loud in English here too and it doesn’t matter at all like it would somewhere where everyone speaks Spanish. There was so much to tell and so much I had forgotten about my home here that the whole affair was quite overwhelming, although the Chilean chocolate bars I brought back to share with my family for desert did a lot to alive my Chile-sickness (aka homesickness from being away from my Chilean homes).

As we were talking at lunch, I realized that even though everyone wanted to know every single detail of my trip, none of them were actually there so none of them will ever know every single story that happened or every single feeling I felt during my crazy three and a half months in Chile. But I also realized that even though it’s a lot of work and takes a lot of explaining, sharing your study abroad stories is SUPER ultra fun, and every study-abroader should look forward (at least a little) to coming home and sharing all their adventures with their friends and families. I was also thinking on the plane and at lunch that although my program was very different than the “typical study abroad” (if that even exists), there’s not one thing I would change about my experience. (EXCEPT maybe eating that one empanada from the street that made me vomit for 24 hours straight.) That being said, I made a list of tips for future #badgersabroad that may or may not help you have a similarly un-regrettable experience wherever you may go:

1) Do NOT eat empanadas off the street.

2) If you want to travel after your program, buy your plane ticket for later than your program end date. If you don’t have a lot of experience abroad like I didn’t, it’s a lot easier to figure out how to travel and get around once you are in your country, understand the culture, language, etc. Don’t worry if you don’t have friends to travel with before you leave, you’re guaranteed to find other people wanting to do the same thing once you’re in your country. Traveling before your program can also be a great option, but keep in mind for both of these that you may be mentally exhausted after your program and just want to go back home to see family/friends which is also a great option. Also keep in mind that seasons may be different in different places when planning, which can affect the activities you’re actually able to do.
3) Even if you have a blog, try to keep an old fashioned journal on paper as well. There will be things you will want to remember that you don’t necessarily want to post to the world, and if you journal consistently you will have something great to look back on once you’re done with your experience.
4) Write letters to yourself – I wrote one to myself in the USA in my journal before I left, and one to myself from Chile for when I got back. You’re probably not going to enjoy every single minute of your study abroad – you’re bound to get sick (and therefore probably homesick) at least a few times, and it’s good to have something to look at that keeps everything in perspective when you’re in your country.
5) Go to your host country with empty space in your checked baggage. You’ll want to take stuff home, and you don’t want to be stuck at the airport throwing out things to make your bags lighter. I ended up buying a whole other carry on bag which solved that one.

6) Immerse yourself in the culture: it’s great to make friends from the USA, but you’ll learn so much more if you also hang out with people from your host country. Go to community events, join a dance class or sports team or volunteer. Especially if you do activities where a group of people meet on a regular basis, you will make great friends who will also probably let you stay with them if/when you ever come back.

7) Take lots of pictures, but don’t forget to enjoy the scenery without your camera too.

8) Try the new foods (but not empanadas.): I enjoyed baking traditional recipes with both of my host families, and now I have recipes to share with my friends back in the US.

9) If you chose to stay with a host family, try to make some time to hang out with them and do fun things together. It’s great to hang out with friends and go on adventures, but sometimes it’s just as fun to cuddle up and watch a movie with your host mom on a Thursday night or meet all the cousins at a family barbecue.

So that’s about all I have to tell you. Just like how my friends back home will never know EVERY detail of my Chilean life (even though I tell epic stories daily and love sharing them), I would never be able to write everything down in this post, even if I tried. There will be little things I forget and small stories that get pushed to the side and I stop telling over time, but I will always remember the generosity of the Chileans for sharing with me their homes and families and likes and hobbies and friendships and culture and so much more. I’m still the same Megan Gray with the same hobbies and friends and favorite foods, but now I’ve learned just a little tiny sliver of what it’s like to live life in a different country/continent/language, which I don’t think I’ll ever fully forget. I also learned how big of an influence the USA really does have in other places, and how we should probably try to work to improve our own country not only for the people who live here, but also for the people in the entire world, many of whom are watching.

Over and Out,

Megan

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