study abroad

Arriving in Your Study Abroad Destination: Expectations vs. Reality

It might not be exactly what you anticipated.
August 27, 2019
9 mins read

Study abroad is one of the most pivotal experiences during students’ college years. Not only is it a great excuse to travel the world, but it is also a fantastic opportunity to learn firsthand about different cultures and their ways of living. However, not all aspects of studying abroad are all sunshine and rainbows, and many horror stories are floating around out there.

I’m studying abroad in Madrid, Spain this fall, and I’ll be honest — I was incredibly nervous going into the semester. Because I chose a program that is not through my own college, I not only had to adjust to a new country and its cultural differences, but also to new people and professors.

Truly, I was not entirely sure what to expect going into my semester studying abroad. For whatever reason, I assumed Spain was the complete opposite of the United States. I thought the people would dress completely differently from how I dress, would eat different foods than to what I am accustomed and would easily notice any discrepancies between themselves and me.

Basically, I was expecting a full-on “culture shock.” Obviously, I was excited for a first-hand experience of Spanish culture; however, excitement doesn’t always mask fear. The internet did nothing but feed my anxiety, and everything I found online, whether it be a travel forum or a blog post, made it sound like Spain was a totally different world full of pickpockets and human traffickers.

Phase One: The Group Flight

Study abroad programs typically come with the option of purchasing a group flight ticket so students can arrive together at their destination. Because this option is more convenient, and often much more inexpensive, many students typically choose to participate. With that being said, the dreaded meeting new people and attempting to make friends begins long before even arriving at your study abroad destination.

Honestly, I was more worried about this part than the fact that I will be living in a foreign country for four months. I felt like I was a freshman in college all over again, except this time, everyone already knew each other because they came from the same school.

Luckily, I had one friend doing the program, so I wasn’t totally alone. Together, we mustered the bravery to approach the not so scary college students and introduce ourselves. Honestly, we were way too nervous about it and, in hindsight, it was ridiculous to be so scared just to meet new people.


Phase 2: Arrival and Customs

I won’t lie, arriving in Madrid was weird. Obviously, I knew I was entering a new country, but for some reason, the fact that everything would be in Spanish momentarily left my mind. Getting off a long flight is always a little tough. You’re tired, jet-lagged, hungry and probably just want a shower and a nap. Having to deal with signs, announcements and border control agents who speak a language you don’t fully understand just amplifies the difficulty.

I chose a study abroad program in Madrid because I am proficient in Spanish and wanted to further my speaking and comprehension capabilities. Nevertheless, when I had to speak to airport employees at customs and baggage claim, I was at a loss. Learning the language in class is nothing like trying to communicate with native speakers.

It’s awkward, slow and involves a lot of repetition of the same phrases on each side — all of which I didn’t really expect. Truthfully, these first few moments trying to communicate using the Spanish language did nothing but amplify my level of anxiety about the upcoming semester. Nevertheless, after a few days it gets easier.


When I was packing for my semester abroad, I did a lot of research to pack according to how Spanish people typically dress. Online, I found a lot of travel forums and blog posts warning travelers from wearing things like shorts, sandals, denim, mini dresses and skirts. So, being the naïve 21-year-old I am, I blindly took that advice and left many of my favorite items at home.

Boy, was I angry when I arrived in Madrid and saw that many people — if not the majority — were wearing all of the things the internet said to avoid.

Culture and Customs

Although a lot of the information online about Spanish attire was not true, a lot of the stereotypes surrounding food and behavior were correct. For example, the Spanish are known for being much more relaxed than the people in the United States, and they really are as easygoing and jovial as everyone says. So, regardless of your study abroad destination, it’s likely that the behavior really is on par with what you hear and read online.

Pickpocketing is obviously a very big concern for individuals traveling to almost any European country. When searching for ways to avoid being targeted, I found a plethora of information encouraging individuals to carry things like money belts and small cross-body bags and to avoid any larger handbags all together. Something I’ve noticed in small towns and larger cities alike is a mixture of the types of bags men and women choose to carry.

Many Spanish people seem to carry small backpacks and tote bags, while others choose smaller bags — it probably just depends on what suits their needs on a particular day. Obviously, as a student, you will need to carry some sort of tote or backpack that can fit a laptop, notebook and whatever school supplies you may need, so don’t be afraid of carrying a larger bag. Just be smart and don’t leave it unattended.


I can’t talk about studying abroad without mentioning the actual studying. As college students, we are accustomed to going to class and budgeting time to study and complete assignments. Class was the least of my worries going into my study abroad program — how different could it be? Some classes might be difficult, others might be easier, but that’s the deal regardless of where or what you’re studying.

Remember, class and assignments are super important, but studying abroad is so much more than having a change of scenery for your classes. Experience the culture, the language, the food and everything else your study abroad destination has to offer.


Bottom line, studying abroad is weird, but it is also likely to be one of the best experiences of your life. Whatever country you choose might not be exactly as you expected, but if so, it won’t be the end of the world.

Spain certainly isn’t exactly what I had anticipated, but none of the differences have been detrimental to my experience so far. I believe the most important part of studying abroad is having an open mind. Regardless of if the reality of your study abroad destination meets your expectations, it’s still the experience of a lifetime, so have fun and make the most of it.

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