What Now? Tips for Students Studying Abroad
By Tayler Ulmer
“Now I’m here. What should I do next?”
This was a question that I consistently asked myself once I arrived to my study abroad location in Cape Town, South Africa. I had spent so much energy preparing and fundraising to get to South Africa that I didn’t even consider what I actually wanted to experience aside from the cheesy tourist activities. I knew that climbing the popular Table Mountain or partying down Long Street wouldn’t satisfy my insatiable desire for adventure. With that being said, I’ve compiled a list of things every student studying abroad should do:
1. Talk to people. I realize that this is super elementary but you would be surprised how important and skipped over this step is. So many times students travel abroad and remain with their American cohorts. They ultimately have an American tourist experience in their host country. More than likely, locals will be willing to hold a conversation but even if they don’t, it is ok and you can just continue engaging in conversations with non-locals– someone is bound to be a great conversation. Clearly, locals are more aware of the happenings in their area and they can always give you the “insider” scoop on where and where not to go. They can also give you pointers on hidden gems that may not be on the tourist’s radar. From simply talking with people, I found myself in all types of environments and venues that I would’ve never heard about. From exclusive beach parties to rinky-dink shabeens, I had a very diverse experience in Cape Town that was only facilitated through conversations with others.
2. Go to local cafes around Universities. My study abroad program was not based at a university, and I was forced to find friends elsewhere. One great resource was my host family and their friends. I also found a slightly rogue but extremely useful tip– go to local cafes, bars and hangouts around the major universities and spark conversations with students. More often than not, the conversation ended quite well and I made a new friend. Be sure that the cafe is in an open and public space, to prevent dangerous encounters.
3. Talk to the wait staff. Wait staff have interactions with individuals all day and every day. They are well aware of what’s happening in the area and can be of great assistance.
4. Volunteer. I found this to be quite helpful for a multitude of reasons: . I was able to give back to a community, even if it wasn’t my own. That by itself had very rewarding opportunities for not only myself but also for the host community. I would advise you to do your research on different organizations and make sure that your work will have an impact. . It allowed me to view the country past the glistening tourist presentation. I was able to gain a first-hand understanding of the South African educational experience by volunteering as a tutor in a township outside of Cape Town. By actually working in the field, I was able to put the things that I read about in context. . I was able to meet other volunteers and foster relationships.
5. Conduct an independent research project. I was able to learn a lot about South Africa and about myself by conducting a research project. If your study abroad program offers this option, please take advantage, it is a great way to meet people who share similar interest with you. However, take the proper precautions to hold an ethical research project and understand that if you don’t have good support for this project, you may cause more harm than good.
6. Join an organization. Simple enough. Find an organization in your community by speaking with community members and/or Google it. This can be a great tool to help you meet residents in your community!
7. Use sites like Meetup.com and the Travel Noire network to connect with others in the area. Use these sites to tap into networks that you didn’t even know existed, and learn about fellow travelers like yourself.
8. Search Instagram hashtags. This is probably the most random tip of them all but it can be quite helpful. Before going to an event or venue, type the name of the place or the event in the hashtag section to “feel out” the crowd and venue. I’ve been able to obtain some pretty pertinent information including the crowd, the popularity of the event and the attire. Also, you can find random events by following club promoters and DJs in the city. Of course, this option is mainly for those who will be in larger cities and whose population has jumped on the Instagram bandwagon.
9. Check events at hostels. Ask the receptionist what’s going on in the area for the week and where they would recommend.
10. Be sincere when you speak with people. Everyone has a BS radar and people know when you are just trying to use them. Form relationships with individuals. Treat others like humans and not a walking EventBrite. Also, share the events that you may have found with them. You may introduce them to events that they weren’t aware happened.
11. Keep in touch with the friends that you make. If someone gives you their number, then don’t be afraid to use it. Text/call/send a messenger pigeon or whatever. You should remain in contact with them. On the same token, try not to blow up their phone with texts or calls.
12. Ask them to bring along their friends when you go out. Once you have made plans to go out, ask them to bring their friends. You want to build your network, and it is always great to meet new people and expand your burgeoning network. Also, if you don’t feel comfortable going to an event or venue by yourself, bring a friend that you trust.
13. Avoid scammers. As you gain new friends, be aware that there are professional scammers and people that may have bad intentions. Don’t be anyone’s fool, approach each situation with particular caution. Be mindful, especially if you met them in a random way. I found it is useful to look at their social media sites to check if we had already had any mutual friends, just to make sure that they are giving me their real identity, and that their photos and statuses seem like they are legit individuals.
14. Have Fun! This is a once in a lifetime opportunity so make the most of it. If you can’t find someone to hangout with, then just hang out with yourself. I was able to have much needed self-reflection time and I learned to just enjoy the person who I am and am becoming.
Tayler is a black girl without borders. As a natural, black, Christian, female, broke, sociology-studying student, the compilation of all of these aspects of her identity have made for some pretty interesting adventures. From making sand castles on a private island to dancing to kwaito music at a shabeen in a Langa township, traveling has enabled her to explore new depths of global understanding. As a student at Spelman College, she is on a fixed budget, but has made her dreams of traveling the world a reality.