by Caroline Herrmann
I spent my Fall 2013 semester abroad studying in Budapest, Hungary. Although the city itself is not a typical choice made by most American students to study abroad, it was an obvious one for me. Not only was I able to take on an entire course load of study entirely related to my desired major (Cognitive Science), but I was also able to live in the country where my grandmother was born and raised, and where a branch of my family still lives.
While the academic curriculum and personal ties helped to provide me with a degree of familiarity, there were still many aspects of the overall experience that remained distinctly foreign to me. The Hungarian language, for starters, is not for the faint of heart. With only a bare minimum of vocabulary and grammar structures bearing relationships to Indo-European languages, the linguistic assimilation to the local culture comes with its own steep learning curve.
The general experience of being in a new environment with no known acquaintances is also stressful in itself and is not aided by the reality of having to learn the ropes of your new community all over again.
The notion of being physically (and mentally) isolated from one’s comfort zone is indeed difficult to tackle at the beginning. Two important traits that I found to be invaluable for my own adjustment process was to always carry with me a sense of humility and to be comfortable with actually being uncomfortable.
When living in a foreign place, it is critical to always keep in mind and respect the local customs and traditions. Although this may seem like an obvious path to follow, it bears with it the recognition that how you conduct yourself in your normal surroundings is NOT necessarily conducive to how aspects within your new environment operate. Following this logic is also a willingness to embrace the unknown.
In Budapest, every single situation that I came across was unlike any other that I had experienced before. In my adjustment process, I needed the extra-ordinary to become my ordinary. This overall transition, however, can only truly come about by putting yourself out there wholeheartedly, and with fearless – though tactful – abandon.
So, for anyone seriously considering studying abroad, here are my recommendations for maximizing your overall experience:
Dive into the local culture.
Take the folk dance class, go to a concert featuring traditional music, and seriously take the time to learn the local language, even if that entails only mastering a few key phrases.
Establish a routine, but keep looking around the corner.
Give yourself time to build your own schedule and familiarize yourself with your surroundings. Pick out a few favorite spots, but never stop discovering.
Get to know the people around you, especially the locals.
These people will be the key to rounding out your entire experience, so please introduce yourself (however awkward you think the encounter may be) sooner rather than later.
Caroline Herrmann is a junior at Duke University majoring in Cognitive Science and minoring in German Studies. She is working on a Markets & Management Studies certificate. Her goal is to attend business school and she would love to work in marketing or consulting in the United States or Europe. She was a part of the first Forté College Leadership Conference and can be found on Twitter at @caroooline717.