Knowing the details about your study abroad program is just as important as knowing where you'll be going. Your program sponsor should provide you with detailed information about your day-to-day living arrangements while you are overseas. Hopefully, you found out most of this information before choosing your final program. However, ask specific questions about your living situation, housing and meals, on-site support, excursions and activities, opportunity to travel independently, etc. Ask any questions that might affect your every day life.
Living with a Host Family
Living with a host family is your chance to transcend the tourist's visit and become a participating guest and member in a family and neighborhood community. Homestays often can be the most meaningful part of your international living experience. The success of your homestay depends a great deal on how you approach the situation.
Consider the hospitality of your host family and some of the adjustments all of you must make in order to live together amicably. Offer to help with household chores. Find out what their daily routines are and how you will fit into them. Communicate with your family. Talk up-front with your family about expectations. Inform them of your intentions to be out late, to bring someone else home or to miss a meal. Avail yourself of their offers to visit relatives, join in local celebrations, sight see points of interest, etc. Share yourself – tell them about your own family, your school and your interests. Photos of family and friends are particularly appreciated.
Most families will take their cues from you. If you are withdrawn, they will think you want your space. If you are open and friendly, they will think you want to belong and will respond accordingly.
Most students find that a good way to break the ice is to bring gifts from home for your host family. Local jams or jellies, coffee-table books, and other regional items (e.g. maple syrup) are always a good idea. If you're going to a country where gift giving is an important part of the culture, you may want to stock up on small items like novelty pencils, pens, or other college-logo items to give as "friendship" gifts. Before giving flowers in a foreign country, be sure to find out if they hold any cultural significance. For example, you wouldn't want to present your host with chrysanthemums in France, as they are associated with mourning and funerals.
Other Living Situations
In some cases, you may not be living with a host family. You may be in an apartment or dormitory, with other students from your program or with students from your host culture. Living on your own comes with a unique set of pros and cons. While it lends to a great amount of independence, it places greater responsibility upon you to take care of your daily needs and integrate yourself in the host culture (especially if you are sharing an apartment with other students from the U.S.).
Paying utility bills, grocery shopping, doing laundry, and cleaning can be a challenge and are time-consuming. Discuss how these things will be handled with your roommates early on. Things that you take for granted (like using an electric clothes dryer to dry your laundry) may become a big deal if you have roommates from the host culture. For example, because the cost of electricity is quite high in New Zealand, Kiwi students forego using the dryer in favor of air-drying clothes outside – even in the middle of winter. You can imagine how our casual use of a dryer would be perceived (and cause some friction) in this situation. Communication is always critical and can help to fix or avoid any conflict that might occur.
Communicating with Home
Phoning the U.S.
International calling is big business and can be confusing and expensive. It is worthwhile to do a little research before you leave the U.S. Contact your phone company for information on how to get a calling card with international access. All major carriers offer international calling cards. Rates on U.S. calling cards can be less expensive than dialing direct.
When you're traveling, AT&T USADirect service is one of the easiest ways to call directly to the U.S. via an English-speaking operator anywhere in the world. Other advice: Avoid long-distance calls from hotels; they sometimes have a 150% surcharge! Also, in many countries public phones are no longer coin operated. You must purchase a local telephone card to make them work.
Find out from your sponsor the specifics of your country. If you decide to use your host family's phone, please realize that local calls often are not free and may be charged by both time and distance. If you must use your family's phone, always ask for permission and offer to pay for your call. Don't be offended if they ask you to use a pay phone or only allow you to receive but not place calls. In some countries itemized bills are not available making it impossible to know the actual cost of your call.
Mobile phones are becoming very accessible in most countries. They are a good way to ensure you have access to a phone at all times. Also, they are a good way to receive calls from your family and friends. It allows them to call you direct rather than on the family phone. Imagine how difficult it might be to receive calls on the family phone in the middle of the night because of the time difference! It is a good idea to find out about cells phones once you arrive.
Although the availability of e-mail and the Internet have increased throughout the world, it is likely that you will be studying abroad in a location that does not have e-mail access to the extent that you are used to in the U.S. Many foreign universities charge a fee to students for e-mail access and/or have limited hours when computers are available. Other students find that their best Internet availability is at an Internet Café. Please remember that one of the reasons you chose to study abroad is to experience a different culture. This means adapting to the use of technology as it is used in the host culture.
E-mail can be a mixed bag when it comes to study abroad. While e-mail has proven to
be an inexpensive and convenient way to stay connected with family and friends back
home, beware of the temptation to spend too much time chatting with friends in the
U.S. Although it exposes family and friends in the U.S. to the new culture you are
experiencing, the time you spend chatting and surfing the net is time that you are
not interacting with the new culture. (Isn't this why you are studying abroad?)
A suggestion that we would make in response to this situation is that you consider e-mail a part of your cultural experience. If local students only use e-mail for 15-minutes once a week, you should too. It will be a challenge, but will provide you with a richer understanding of the culture and its approach to technology in comparison to the United States.
You will not need to set up new e-mail accounts while abroad. If you have Internet access, you can access your Skidmore account through Webmail. Most of your programs will provide you with a university issued e-mail address. Or you may set up an account on a free server; Yahoo and Hotmail are examples of some of these options. Instructions for having your email forwarded can be found on the Skidmore IT Web site. (Please note that this forwards new e-mail. Any mail currently sitting in your inbox on Skidmore's server will not be forwarded.)
Communicating with Your Family
It is totally understandable that your family will have questions or concerns about the fact that you are studying abroad. This is a moment that you have been waiting for your entire life! Your family, however, might not be quite as enthusiastic. While you are worrying about what to pack and how to survive jet lag, your parents are worrying about whether you will be able to call them in case of an emergency, who will take care of you if you get sick, and whether you have enough clean underwear! (I guess they are worrying about what you should pack…) Family and friends will worry about your safety. This is especially true during this time of global unease. Just think of the concerns that are going through your own mind, and you are excited about this. Most parents will be excited too; but, they will also want you to share your own fears and expectations, and most of all, knowledge with them.
Here are some suggestions about how to deal with your family and friends to help put them at ease as you take off over the ocean.
- Communicate openly. Tell your parents, family and friends your own feelings, hopes,
and fears. Don't hide what you're experiencing to try to "protect" them. This will
help them realize that you too are feeling a flurry of emotions. By opening up to
them, you will then allow them to open up to you. This type of communication will
then give you the opportunity to educate them about the realities of the country and
situation you will be part of. It will also show them you have thought hard about
this decision and are prepared to take on this challenge.
- Study abroad also includes a significant social aspect. Although your parents might
want to hear that study abroad is an entirely academic pursuit, and academics are
a key piece of the puzzle, it is important that they understand that you will be pursuing
other interests also. Study abroad is about the whole experience and the social interactions
lead to other learning that is essential as well. Make sure your parents are aware
of this fact.
- They can't believe everything they read or hear through the news and other media.
The media has a tendency to sensationalize the news. On the other hand, there is some
truth in what the media reports. The problem is that your parents are not in England
or India or any other country with you and do not know what is really happening where
you are. With this in mind, always make sure you stay in touch with your family and
friends during times of trouble. You are the one who can explain that the bombing
they heard about was actually five hours drive away from where you are living.
- Safety is an issue that is real but manageable. Some parents believe students are
in more danger while overseas than they are while in the U.S. This misconception can
be difficult for you to work against. The truth is that, in most countries, theft,
assault, and violent crimes are far less frequent than they are here in the U.S. Many
people living overseas consider the States to be a very dangerous country and have
trouble coming to terms with the idea of worrying about the types of personal crimes
we encounter here on a regular basis. Having said that, make sure you take appropriate
precautions to protect yourself against crime and violence. We have given you suggestions
in the section on health and safety. Share this information with your family.
- There is someone overseas to help take care of you. Not that you need to be taken care of, but to your parents you are still their son or daughter. They will worry about you and wonder what will happen should you catch a cold or break a leg. Reassure them that you have chosen a program that offers on-site support in the form of a director or staff who will be available to help you with any personal or academic issues. You are not alone. (And, let's face it, sometimes you might need to be taken care of…)