Step #0 or Where to Start Before You Start Studying Abroad

from one to the other
Left: DU – Right: University of Newcastle

Hey there. My name’s Joshua Weigley and I’m a DU undergrad student studying abroad in my fourth year at the University of Newcastle, Australia. I chose this awesome Foundational program because I’m a beach kid at heart. But enough about me…

I don’t think anyone likes this step. If anyone does they’re likely the same people who enjoy taking frivolous strolls to the DMV and hanging out in a dentist’s waiting area. This is also the only step that will not translate well to other universities. Every study abroad office (if your school even has a devoted office for it) will have its own pedantic processes and paperwork. So my detailed experience with that won’t be the most helpful (unless you also go to DU, in which case let’s chat). But of course there are things everyone will have to do if they want to study at an international university:

Get your passport – like right now. I don’t care if you’re planning to study abroad over a year from now. Track down your birth certificate or social security card or both. Go get a crappy mug shot taken at Walgreens. I did this as my last step and it was awful and stressful and expensive. So do yourself a favor and pay a visit to your friendly neighborhood Department of State Office. And then after 6-8 weeks you can sit and relax with your fancy new blue cardstock book.

Find out how to start – this one sounds weird, but bare with me. I’ve been told that the process I had to go through was actually abnormally easy, and it still took more effort than I would have preferred. Do some research on your university’s website and see if they have any kind of study abroad office or department. Also try the International Studies Department. And then if the information you need like application deadlines, approved international universities, and scholarship options is not readily available, start sending some emails and ask way too many questions. Beyond that, you’ll find that a lot of responsibility is placed on you to make sure you attend required meetings and finish paperwork on your own. But don’t stress out about it too much. These programs are designed so that students actually use them and go abroad.

Pick a destination – the coolest part, but often the hardest. Narrow it down to three or four schools if you can. Scrawl endlessly on loose pieces of paper the pros and cons of each choice. Argue with yourself at 1 am about “where you best see yourself”. And then one day realize that you’re going to have the time of your life regardless of where you go. I chose the University of Newcastle after months of thinking I wanted to go somewhere else. Whatever exhaustive process you need, just choose and don’t look back.

If you want to see my posts right when they come out, check out “A __ Step Guide”

  • Joshua Weigley
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5 Reasons Why Studying Abroad Makes You A Better Person

  1. You Forge Local Relationships

Oh, María. That’s how I start many of my stories about my Spanish host mother. María was the best. She was a chubby, 68, year-old Salamanca native who had hosted students for 30 years, and made my study abroad experience 100 times better. We would huddle around my computer to watch Barcelona soccer matches, she would cook me paella every Sunday, and we would spend dinnertime joking around, watching terrible Spanish television, and talking about our days. When I would come home for a midnight snack, which was more like a 5-6am snack, María started calling me “The Ghost” and asking if “The Ghost” had visited the night before to raid our refrigerator.

Something wonderful about study abroad is that you have time to develop local relationships, whether they’re with your host family, roommate/flat-mate, or other students. No person I met on a weekend or week-long trip has ever impacted me as much as María did with her kindness and fun home atmosphere. She taught me to be more blunt and reinforced me to shamelessly laugh at myself, whenever possible.

  1. Find Local Gems

Let’s just say Trip Advisor only goes so far. Yes, it will give you the best restaurants, destinations, etc., but sometimes you don’t want the “best” experience, you want a genuine one. My favorite spots in Salamanca were the ones I made my own, like the coffee shop I would go to after class to chat with Beatriz, who would give my friend Ian and I advice, or the Erasmus Bar where my team and I would play trivia every Wednesday (we won thrice, I might add). None of those places would make a website because they were unspectacular at face value, until you made a memory in them.

A book fair came to Salamanca, which was a ton of fun to walk through
A book fair came to Salamanca, which was a ton of fun to walk through
  1. You live outside your comfort zone

Some say that growth comes from discomfort, which I agree with 100%. Growing as a person means exposing yourself to new experiences, feelings, and situations that lie outside of the status quo. The wonderful thing about study abroad is that you are uncomfortable all the time, so by default you’re growing all the time. Whether you’re navigating a new country in a new language, battling your way through classes, meeting new people, missing old people, or finding your niche in your new home, study abroad is difficult at times, and it SHOULD BE. If everything has a shiny exterior and you never come across a meaningful challenge, you miss the depth that leads to growth. There was one weekend, pretty early into my study abroad experience, where the eight people I knew were out of town, and I almost went Jack Nicholson-style The Shining on everyone due to cabin fever. That experience prompted me to be more proactive, but also helped me learn how to be alone and made me a better person.

  1. You learn street smarts AND book smarts

First of all, when you’re studying abroad, you’re ideally doing some studying. Wow, novel concept here, I know.

While I was in Spain, I took Portuguese classes, a class on the history of the Jews in Spain, a class on Spanish literature, and the History of Philosophy, of which I learned a lot, to the point where I still have trouble calling philosophers by their English names. Aristotle or Aristoteles? I don’t know either…

But, moreover, you also learn street smarts. You learn the skills necessary to navigate uncomfortable situations (cough, exactly what I mentioned in the last reason, cough). I had my passport stolen my first night in Morocco, which makes most problems a cakewalk when I face them now. At least I’m not in a foreign country and speak none of the national languages desperately trying to find a way home…

  1. You have the opportunity to travel and live in the world.

Now, in case you were worried, I’m not advocating for a study abroad trip with no travel when I mentioned finding local gems and forging local relationships. I had a blast visiting other places in Europe while I was abroad and have many friends whose travel stories are mind-blowing. What I am advocating for is for you to soak it up when you’re out there. This is usually a once in a lifetime opportunity, make sure you leave a different person than when you entered.

Taking in the beach in Tangier, Morocco
Taking in the beach in Tangier, Morocco

-Max Spiro, Study Abroad Assistant