Learn About Your Destination
Engaging with your host community and culture is central to the study abroad experience and to the discoveries that you will make about yourself and your host country. But remember: the level and depth of interaction that you will have with the local culture will depend largely on your own initiative, and the process starts long before your arrival in your host country.
Having some knowledge about your host institution and country will make you better equipped to interact with your local environment in a substantive and meaningful way. Having a basic understanding of the history and geography of your host country as well as social, economic, and political systems will help you build relationships with local people and better understand the cultural dynamics you will experience. The more informed you are about the environment in which you will be living and studying, the more likely you will be to question assumptions or misconceptions you may have about the place and people, to understand and cope with differences between your expectations and the reality you experience (see cultural adjustment), and to represent yourself, Northwestern University, and the United States well.
Do your Research!
Take some time before you depart to set specific goals for yourself while you are abroad and plan how you might accomplish them. Begin by researching the basic history of your host country and/or city, as well as local politics and government, language, religion, holidays, traditional art and music, the economic system, customs and traditions, gender roles, recent hot topics and controversies, etc. Besides basic Internet searches, consider watching a movie from or about your host country, reading a novel or non-fiction work about the place you are visiting, reading articles from local newspapers online, and buying a travel guide that points out the major sights and attractions in the area where you will be living.
Try to answer the following questions and find out how prepared you are! If you don’t know the answers, you may find them in a country guidebook, online, or in the country-specific materials given to you by your program.
- Are there other languages spoken besides the dominant language? What are the social and political implications of language usage?
- What is the predominant religion?
- What are the important holidays? How are they observed?
- What are the expected gender roles?
- Are there any cultural taboos you should be aware of?
- What foods are most popular and how are they prepared?
- How do people organize their daily activities? What is the normal meal schedule? Is there a daytime rest period? What is the customary time for visiting friends?
- How do people greet one another? Shake hands? Embrace or kiss? How do they leave one another?
- If you are planning to live with a host family, learn a little about everyday family life. Ask returnees questions such as:
- Is it appropriate to shower every day and for how long?
- Will I appear rude if I study in my room?
- What kind of local transportation is available? Who typically uses it?
- Is the price asked for merchandise fixed, or are the customers expected to bargain?
- How will your financial position and living conditions compare with those of the majority of locals?
- What currency is used? What is the exchange rate?
Questions for Your Study Abroad Program
The following questions may be program-specific. You can find the answers in the materials distributed by your program or by talking to other students about their experiences abroad.
- What are the visa requirements? Does the program assist in the application process?
- What do students do in their free time?
- Does the on-site staff let you know about events around the city?
- Are there university clubs, organizations, or social groups that you can join?
- Are there specific health/safety considerations you need to know about? Required immunizations?
- What are the average class sizes? Teaching styles?
- How do you interact with local students?
- What is included in tuition? Does the program offer a stipend for cultural activities?
- What is the housing like? What is the food situation?
- Should you bring your host family a gift?
- Are there specific cultural activities that should not be missed?
- What is the culture surrounding alcohol use?
- What identity considerations should you be aware of in the host culture?
- How much money should you expect to spend? What’s a realistic budget?