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Settling In — How to Make a Home While Studying Abroad

Halloween at the U's Bennion Center

”Home” is a tricky word. As children it’s our safe place, as teens we just want to get out. It can be a house or an entire community, or perhaps a rocking chair or beanbag in a cozy corner. The Swedes like to say “borta bra men hemma bäst,” or “away is good, but home is best.” And of course, we all know it’s where the heart is.

But for many students who study internationally, it can be difficult to comfortably cross the line between “home” and “vacation.” When you’re staying in another country for a semester or even a year, it becomes a completely different situation from a weekend in the Bahamas. For many it feels like a vacation at first, but after the honeymoon phase wears off they’re left wondering why they came in the first place. Everything is better at home, they miss their friends and family, and nothing is as it should be.

I personally have experienced these ups and downs from both sides, having been a host sister to a foreign exchange student and now being one myself. The fact is that a drastic change like studying abroad will never be exactly easy. There will be highs and there will be lows. But there are some tips that can certainly help along the way, and I’d like to share them. If even one person gets a tiny drop of worth out of this review, my goal is fulfilled.

Baking with exchange students.

When I came to Sweden, I was lucky. I already had friends here, since my family had hosted a Swedish exchange student the previous year and I had visited over the summer. And it really helps to have a friend. You may not know anyone there yet, but there’s a lot you can do to get a head start. So my first tip is: Get to know people before you go. Find other students who will be in your area, or try to get in touch with some natives. Most exchange organizations (such as ISEP and Erasmus) utilize social networks, and their Facebook pages are easy to find. Past, current, and future students frequently use Facebook to keep in touch and let others know about their wonderful experiences.

Another great resource for me was Sweden in Touch, known as “Sweden’s official community for international students.” The site features blogs, forums, networks, events, and more. As with any such site, some amount of spam and irrelevant info is inevitable, but there are quite a few gems there, too! It turns out that most European countries, and many others as well, have websites geared specifically at international students. Go to the government page for your country of choice and see what you can find!

For a slightly more old-school approach, you could also consider finding a pen pal. Yes, people still do that, and it’s not just me, I promise! A huge number of native students are interested in finding people with similar interests from other cultures. A site that worked well for me is InterPals. You can search by age, location, gender, and interests. You just might find a connection.

With friends on a school trip in Estonia.

But what do you do once you’ve arrived? The most obvious tip, but worth mentioning, is to get involved with the international office on campus, as well as the student union. Usually such organizations will arrange many student activities, some exclusively for the international students and some encompassing the entire student body. Both are worthwhile!

However, if you really want to make your new location feel like “home,” I’ve got a dare for you: really try to get to know the native students. For as long as I’ve known what an exchange student was, I’ve noticed that they tend to hang out in flocks. In high school and in college, in Utah and in Sweden, the exchange students buddy up with other exchange students and stick for the most part to themselves. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting to know other international students, and indeed it can be an incredibly enriching experience, let me remind you that is not why you came. Chances are you’re studying abroad to become familiar with the native culture, and you’re not going to do that if you only hang out with other exchange students.

Friends on a hike in Utah.

I realize, of course, that getting out there and becoming a part of the local culture can be a daunting task. So for all you who need a helping hand, I’ve gathered a few resources which I hope will be of some assistance, particularly for those at the good ol’ U of U!

Number One: MeetUp. Yes, the idea of finding groups and clubs through an online engine sounds a little hokey. But it works! I used it here in Sweden, and you can use it there. I was able to get involved with several great groups, including a language café and a group of people who simply like to meet and play board games. If you’re interested in getting out in SLC, check out the Movie and Dinner Gang, Broadway Theater Group, or Boardgame Nut. If you prefer physical activities, consider a Yoga group or a Outdoor Adventure club that will get you more acquainted with the local nature scene.

Of course, there are similar resources right here on campus. Join one of the 400-something student groups, check out the Outdoor Recreation Program and keep an eye on the campus calendar for fun events like sports games or free movies at the Post Theater. There are plenty of new opportunities every month!

Volunteers and friends through the U's Bennion Center.

Alternatively, if you’re interested in seeing your new community from another, deeper angle, and perhaps even making a lasting imprint yourself, consider getting involved with the Bennion Service Center. There are more than 45 student volunteer programs on campus, including everything from cleaning up in nature to knitting hats for newborn babies. In addition the Bennion Center hosts a different large-scale service project every month. This can be a great way to have fun while getting to know the locals and helping out the community! I was involved with the Bennion Center while I was at the U and the experience was truly priceless. It’s one aspect which I have not yet been able to recreate here in Sweden, where volunteer work is scarce and hard to find.

But finally! You’ve gotten involved on campus and in the community. You’ve met tons of students, local and from around the world. What’s the next step? Have fun, of course! Don’t wait around for something fun to come up; create it yourself. Invite your new friends over for an international dinner, or have a movie night where you watch each other’s favorites. Go to the zoo or dance in the rain, whatever you can come up with! Salt Lake, Stockholm, or any other city in the world will only begin to feel like home when you try to make it home. Just like a friend, no town will ever be faultless, and there will be goods and bads and ups and downs. That’s what makes it exciting!

Playing in the rain in Sweden.

I hope this list has been of some use to you, and that you will use these tools to help you settle in to your new home, wherever that may be. Whether you’re staying for a month, a semester, or a year, everyone should have a place to go to at the end of the day that they can call home…or at least for a while. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions, about this post or about settling in in Salt Lake City, feel free to write it below or send me an email, solveig.rundquist@gmail.com! Good luck!

  • LoveStudyAbroad

    I completely agree with you about going out of your way to get to know local students. Also, I would add that you should talk to students who have studied abroad in your host city the previous semester before you go. I realized things three months in that I wish I had known day one, especially pertaining to making local friends. By the time I figured it out, it was too late. Students Gone Global, launching in January, is creating a blogging network just for study abroad students that will be better than Bloggr or Tumblr. Create a blog on their and browse through other students blogs for advice such as the above. http://www.facebook.com/studentsgoneglobal

  • http://www.symphonyhomes.com Sam

    I really like this post, especially because i’m seriously considering doing study abroad. You laid out some great resources to use and definitely have made me want to travel. If I ever take time off from working with a custom home builder
    I will definitely use this blog again when I travel.

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