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6 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Traveling

6 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Traveling

By Katie Ford

When you first decide to start traveling, whether it be while you’re studying abroad or just because, there will be an onslaught of things that you need to learn, and a large amount of advice streaming in from every direction from well-meaning people who may have done it before.  What those people won’t tell you is that there are some things that you’ll just have to learn by trial-and-error, and there are other things that would be way less fun if you didn’t learn them yourself.  Here is the list of things that I wish I knew before I started traveling on my own:

  1. It won’t be perfect.  Half of the fun of traveling are the mistakes, mishaps, wrong turns, and other crazy things that happen while you’re exploring the world.  If traveling was perfect, it would be significantly less exciting, and you would learn far less.  Whenever something goes wrong, approach the situation knowing that you can handle anything that happens, and smile through it.  There will be something amazing to come out of it if you have the right attitude!
  2. There is such a thing as too much research.  Knowing about where you’re traveling to is a really good thing, but there comes a point when you’ve really over-researched your trip.  If you know every detail about every site in the city, you’ll likely only see those sites, which means that you’ll be missing out on a lot of the city that isn’t written about in the guide books.
  3. Getting lost can be the best thing to do.  Getting lost in a city you don’t know may seem intimidating, but it’s also incredible exciting and usually very worth-while.  Take some time to get lost in the city, find local places to eat, and do what locals do- you’ll probably have a much better experience, and you’ll also get a taste of what life is like in another part of the world!
  4. Every opportunity can be a good opportunity.  Getting the opportunity to travel somewhere is always a good thing, but how that trip actually works out can be situational.  You need to approach a trip with a good attitude, willingness to learn and to try new things, and most importantly, an open mind.  When you travel, you’ll likely see things that differ greatly from anything you’re used to or have seen before, and those things can be incredibly jarring if you’re not prepared to openly question them and learn about them.  The opportunity will be what you make of it!
  5. Sometimes it’s better to travel alone.  Traveling with friends is an absolutely great experience, but sometimes it’s better to go somewhere by yourself.  You’ll have the chance to do exactly what you want to do, eat what you want to eat, and see what you want to see without having to check in with anyone else’s wants or needs.  Traveling by yourself gives you the opportunity to problem-solve and learn about yourself in an entirely new context- plus, you’ll likely be able to meet some other solo travelers that you might not have otherwise met!  Treat yourself to a trip by yourself, you’ll be amazed at how good it feels.
  6. Your travel bucket list will never shrink.  The more you travel, the more places you’ll want to see.  I’m always amazed at how often traveling to one place inspires me to want to visit another.  I always want to make a comparison between cities in the same country, or countries with similar history.  You can cross as many countries off your list as you’d like, but you will always be adding more and more places to visit.  Once you start traveling, it’ll become a life-long obsession, so embrace it early and figure out a way to keep going!

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Redefining the Role of the Traveler: Stereotypes and Traveling

Redefining the Role of the Traveler: Stereotypes and Traveling

By Katie Ford

Stereotypes are such a funny thing.  They occupy space in our minds as if they were a true representation of whatever that “thing” is, and it’s often difficult for us to reexamine our opinions once we’ve adopted a stereotype as truth.  When we travel, these stereotypes become all-important maps that determine how we interact with other people and other cultures.  When we experience another culture, country, or group of people through the attitude of a stereotype, we’re not really doing justice to the experience that’s before us, and often we’re left with an empty feeling about the thing we’ve experience, and we often leave a “bad taste” in the mouths of those we’ve interacted with.  So many times these experiences color the way in which we regard these countries, people, or cultures in the future, and how we relate them to friends and family at home, which only serves to perpetuate these stereotypes that we’ve unfairly established.

The example of French culture comes to mind when I consider the problem of stereotypes as they relate to traveling, although of course it isn’t the only example. Often those who haven’t experienced French culture have quite negative opinions of French culture and people before ever stepping foot in the country. The French are often viewed as cold, entitled, and unforgiving. All of these judgments do a great disservice to the French culture, but more importantly, to the French people.  Many Americans believe it will be impossible to travel in France without speaking French because of how nasty the French are to non-French speakers.  I’ve even been told by people that the French pretend not to speak English, even when they do, because they hate non-French speakers so much. I found this to be completely absurd, as my somewhat lengthy experiences with French people and culture reflect a completely opposite reaction to English speakers.  Even in the infamously intolerant city of Paris I’ve had excellent conversations with waiters and other Parisians in tourist areas, speaking in both English and French, many times in English because these conversations provided my conversation partner with an opportunity to practice English.  I’ve been told that the French are entitled because they expect that everyone who visits France to speak French.  My response?  Well, yes.  And they should.  When someone visits my home country, I typically expect that they at least make the effort to speak in English, and I’m sure many of you feel the same way.  Why should the French be expected to speak my language in their country?

I appreciate that it is likely impossible for a traveler to learn the language of every country they visit- I certainly can’t.  It is, however, important to make an effort to greet people in their own language, and be polite, especially when communicating in your native language.  Appreciate that this person is making a sacrifice for your comfort while you’re visiting their home, and act accordingly.  You’ll be surprised how quickly those “French assholes” turn into kind and generous people once you actually attempt to adapt to their culture while in their country.  Presuming that natives of any country that you visit will be able to cater to your needs is inconsiderate at best and straight up rude in its extreme forms.  Stereotypes like these can be extremely harmful to cross-cultural understanding and acceptance of other cultures that you’ll encounter while traveling, and they’re totally unnecessary barriers.  If you are willing and able to approach a new culture with an open mind and open heart, you’re much more likely to have a fantastic experience, and you’re much more likely to learn about that culture as well as your own. Travelers are in a unique diplomatic position, as they’re on the cultural “front line”, and they serve as ambassadors of their own country and culture.  How will you take that responsibility and transform it into something beautiful?

And when you can’t figure out what the signs say, miming always works too 😉

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3 Ways to Survive the Holidays Abroad

3 Ways to Survive the Holidays Abroad

By Katie Ford

Most would agree that studying abroad is an incredible experience, and it is worth the school events, club activities, and parties that you might miss while you’re away.  I doubt that anyone would argue that studying abroad becomes much more difficult when you’re away from your family during the holidays.  There are ways to help lessen any homesickness you might be feeling, and that will allow you to enjoy the holidays, even when you’re abroad!  Here are some great ways to overcome homesickness while you’re away for the holidays:

  1. Celebrate anyway!  Especially with holidays like Thanksgiving, it’s super easy to have your own celebration with American friends who are also studying abroad.  You can gather everyone’s favorite recipe from their own family Thanksgiving so that everyone gets one dish that’s a comfort Thanksgiving food.  You can even make cooking a group activity to stave off the homesickness that holidays can bring.  Hosting an American holiday abroad is also a great way to share your culture with your new friends from your host culture!  Invite local friends to your Thanksgiving dinner so that they get to participate as well- trust me, they’ll appreciate it (especially with all that great food)!  You may also be able to find restaurants in your host city that prepare a traditional meal if you’re unwilling or unable to cook on your own.  Just spending time with friends from your home culture will help you feel more in touch with the holiday and your family at home.
  2. Skype.  One of my favorite things to do when I’m away for the holidays is to Skype home with my family during their celebration.  This usually means me staying up ridiculously late to be passed around on an iPad or laptop while everyone watches the football game, but it’s well worth the laughs that come from getting my grandma to understand the concept of Skype.  Skyping home to be involved with your family’s celebration is a great way to feel connected to the festivities.
  3. Travel.  Traveling during a holiday that you can’t be home for is a great way to take your mind off the fact that you’re not home with your family.  Last year I spent Christmas Eve (probably my favorite holiday) in a pub in Scotland, and I had the best time ever surrounded by two friends and a whole bunch of Scottish strangers.  If you go out to a bar or restaurant for a holiday abroad, especially a holiday that is celebrated internationally, you’re also likely to meet locals that are celebrating alone/with friends, and you might be able to join their group!  Plus, if you’re traveling to cities that are also celebrating the holiday, you’ll be exposed to different traditions from another culture- what a great way to learn something new about the holiday!

Being away from home during any holiday isn’t fun, but you can certainly still enjoy these holidays even while you’re abroad!  Take the time during the holidays to learn about holiday traditions in your host country, and perhaps even share some of your own customs with your host friends/family/community.  Sharing traditions, values, and insights is a huge part of why studying abroad is such a great tool for bridging gaps between countries and cultures all over the world.  Use your time abroad, especially times when you might be most homesick, to encourage understanding and acceptance of other cultures, and embrace new holiday traditions while sharing your own!

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Thanksgiving 2013 in Cardiff, Wales- 4 nationalities were represented!

Toiletry Hacks for Traveling

Toiletry Hacks for Traveling

By Katie Ford

How annoying is it to plan a big backpacking trip, pack up all of your necessary items into a carry-on backpack, and then realize that all of your toiletry items don’t fit into that tiny clear plastic bag?  Well, my friends, I’ve discovered the Holy Grail of travel-friendly toiletry items!  I spent some time visiting my local LUSH store in Nanuet, NY learning all about the amazing products they have available that are super travel-friendly.  All of these products are for use by men or women, and are all-natural as well as cruelty-free- I don’t think it gets much better!

Here are my favorites for my next backpacking adventure:

My first travel essential is always shampoo and conditioner.  I see no reason to let my hair hygiene habits go by the way-side when I’m out on the road.  LUSH has the perfect alternative to carrying around tiny travel-sized bottles of shampoo: the Shampoo Bar.

Each of these little round bars is shampoo that can be used for 60-100 washes!  That’s as much as a large bottle of shampoo that you’d buy at the grocery store, and it doesn’t count towards your liquid limit.  There are several different ones, and each adds something to your hair, so if you’re looking for something specific (e.g. to help with fine hair, curly hair, colored hair, etc.) then pop into a LUSH store to speak with an associate who can point you in the right direction.  Otherwise, this product is available on their website.

And what is a solid shampoo without a conditioning friend, right?  There are two choices for solid conditioner at LUSH, but I’ve tried (and love) the “Jungle” one.

This one feels much more like a “normal” conditioner in your hair, so it won’t be too different from your usual routine.  With both the solid shampoos and conditioner, you just need to rub the bar between wet hands while you’re in the shower to get some of the lather out of it, and then use as you usually would with shampoo/conditioner!  For additional travel-friendliness, you can stick these in a case (sold to fit the sizes in store) so that they can just be dropped in your bag.  I’ve also put them in their own plastic baggies, but if you do this while they’re wet, they stay soggy until you’re able to remove them and dry them out.

One of my least-favorite things while traveling is how dry my skin seems to get.  Carrying around decent lotion is not only a pain, but it’s kind of expensive!  LUSH has two solid options that can replace daily body moisturizers- Massage Bars and Body Butters.

Massage Bars are typically used right when you get out of the shower (so your body is still warm!)

You simply rub one of these bars in between your hands to get it warmed up, and then rub it all over.  It leaves your body moisturized and smelling wonderfully (and again, does not count towards your liquid limit in carry-on baggage).  There are also tins sold for these, although you can try sticking these in a plastic bag as well, just be careful not to put too many heavy things on top or it’ll break.

Body Butters are used while you’re still in the shower to give you a pre-moisturized body before you even dry off!

There are two options for these, “Buffy” (pictured above) or “King of Skin”.  I have tried “Buffy”, and I absolutely love it because it’s also an exfoliator (it contains ground almonds and rice), so it left my skin feeling incredibly soft.  ”King of Skin” has bananas as its main ingredient, and is only a moisturizer, although it too leaves skin feeling incredibly soft.

Both the Massage Bars and Body Butters are great for traveling, as they’re solids and are relatively small.  You really don’t need to use both to have moisturized skin, either, so choose your favorite to save space while you’re out and about!

The last product I found to be a travel break-through are the Toothy Tabs.  These little solid toothpaste tabs are a great alternative to carrying around liquid toothpaste bottles.

All you need to do is bite one of the little tabs between your front teeth, and then crush it up until it foams.  Once it’s foamy you can just brush as usual with a wet toothbrush- I’m also told that you can just chew it and swish it around if you’re in a pinch and don’t have a toothbrush available.  I’ve tried this one (“Dirty”), and I must say that it will take some getting used to, but to avoid another liquid in my bag it’s a good alternative!  The great thing is that these boxes are tiny, and can fit easily into a purse, makeup bag, or side pocket of a backpack, so they’ll take up almost no space.

The last couple of products that I use while I’m traveling aren’t LUSH, but they’re still great!  I hate the idea of bringing shaving cream around with me, so I always bring a Schick Intuition razor.

I love these because the razors last for quite a while, and I think I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve cut myself shaving over the last several years that I’ve used this product.  There aren’t any “liquid” components to it, the soap bar around the razor serves as the shaving cream (and as a post-shave moisturizer all-in-one).  You’ll just need to bring the razor base and a couple of the razor refills if you’ll be away for a while, and you’ll be all set!  These can typically be purchased at any grocery or drug store in the razor section.  They’re also sold in certain countries abroad (like the UK), so you can refill on the road if you need to.

My last go-to favorite product is the Makeup Remover Cleansing Towelettes by Neutrogena.  Even when I’m traveling, I still try to take care of my face and skin, and removing my makeup at night is key for me to control breakouts.

These towelettes are super effective at removing all of my makeup (including waterproof mascara), and they’re liquid-free!  They’re sold in both soft packages and hard cases, so you can choose whichever is best for you (soft is typically better for backpacking, as they can be squished into a makeup bag without any damage).  These can typically be purchased in any drug store, Target, or Walmart in the make-up section.

After packing all of these liquid-free products, the only items that I would need to put into my clear plastic bag are face wash and hair mousse!  Of course, the products that you need/use will determine how many additional liquids you’ll have, but it’s sure to be fewer once you take shampoo/conditioner, moisturizers, and toothpaste out of the equation.  If you’re able to get by without any liquids, think of how much easier airport security will be!

Make sure to check out Study Hard Travel Smart and our Facebook Page to keep updated with our latest travel advice, photos, and stories- Happy Travels!

*A special thanks to Barry and Nikole at LUSH Nanuet for their help!*

Traveling to Israel

Traveling to Israel

By Emily Jacobs

I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to travel to many amazing places and see some beautiful cultures. Having an open mind is the best thing you can bring with you when you travel. I had the pleasure to travel to Israel during the summer of 2013. With some concern from my friends and family, I decided to go on a trip that changed my life.

Don’t worry- this is not a political piece about the conflict that is going on. This is about travel and culture. I went on an 11-day trip to Israel, during which time my group traveled all around the country. My trip was an organized trip made up of 37 Americans and 7 Israeli soldiers. There were two American group leaders and one Israeli organizer. The seven soldiers that were traveling with us were just traveling; they were not on duty during the 11 days. We had a security guard always with us that was trained in first aid and always armed. Now that all the boring stuff is out of the way now we can talk about the culture and travel.

Throughout the 11 days we traveled from the north of the country to the south of the country. While traveling, we were getting to know the Israeli soldiers we were with. Some of the best times were when we were just sitting and talking about how their life is in the military.  In Israel, when anyone turns 18 years old they are automatically enlisted in the army. All I wanted to do was understand what their lives were like as soldiers, and all they wanted was to understand what college was like in America, and if it was really like the movies. As different as we were to them, we were all just teens traveling and seeing things we hadn’t before.

While we were traveling through Israel, I couldn’t help but notice how nice the people were. Everyone would strike up conversation with us and when they found out we were from America, they were grateful we were there to see the land and culture. I have never been to a place were the pride of the country was so prevalent everywhere. We learned about the history of how Israel became a free country and the struggle they have overcome and are still fighting for. The Israelis we were with were so happy to share all their family history and loss throughout the years. They were not trying to scare us but instead, they wanted to share their reality with us.

One day we traveled as close as we could to Gaza to see a bomb shelter that is a huge playground for kids. This was built for children to be able to play soccer, basketball, rock climb, and really, just be kids while being safe. There is no secret that Gaza is a heavily targeted area for missiles from both sides of the fighting. When we went inside there were kids everywhere playing as if there wasn’t a war going on right outside. It was so amazing to see these kids play and let loose. We watched a video about the protocol that happens when a missile is detected. In most areas, a siren goes off and there is 15 seconds to take cover before the missile hits. There were two moments in the trip that shook me and really made this video come to life. One was when we were sitting on the boarder between Israel and Syria- we were hearing bombs and missiles go off in Syria and seeing smoke rise from the hits. This was the first day we were in Israel, our Israeli guide wanted to show us the landscape of the countries. When we stopped to look over the land we couldn’t help but hear bombs go off. All the Americans on the trip were looking around and very uneasy while the Israelis barely heard the bombs. Our guide assured us the bombs are contained within Syria and their civil war. The second time was the morning after we visited the bomb shelter- one of our Israelis told us a few hours after we left that a missile hit that neighborhood. Luckily no one was killed, but to know this is normal for them really saddened me and opened my eyes to how lucky I am to live in America. In saying all of that I think it is very important to say that not once did I ever feel unsafe or uncomfortable during the entire trip. I knew what to do if anything was to happen.

If anyone has the opportunity to travel to not only Israel, but anywhere in the Middle East, open your mind to their culture and their “normal”. It was a life-changing trip that has opened my eyes to not only their culture, but also to what we take for granted in our own culture. Regardless of religious or political beliefs, Israel is truly an incredible place with unbelievable history that should not go unseen. Happy and safe travels!

Getting Out of the City

Getting Out of the City

By Katie Ford

Today I was in Helsinki, Finland, but I only saw the city through the windows of a car.  This is super unusual for me because I almost always recommend seeing the city itself before you head outside of it to do other activities.  I think that this happens to be the exception, with no disrespect to Helsinki, which I’m sure is a lovely city.  When traveling, it’s very important to understand the place that you’re visiting, and figuring out what’s important to that place.  In Helsinki, and all over Finland, it’s nature.  Outdoor sports rule the land, so what better way to see the country than from a kayak in the fjords?  Make sure to check out favorite local activities while you’re traveling so that you have the opportunity to truly experience the places that you travel to!

My adventure in Helsinki:

I opted to do a guided kayaking tour of the Finnish Fjords because I knew of the beautiful nature that Finland has to offer, and thought that it would be a once in a lifetime experience.  I’m so glad that I was right.  We started the day by being driven from the port of Helsinki to where the kayaks were located, and we were then “suited up”.  Our suits included a life vest and splash skirt (a tarp-like skirt which wraps around the seat hole of the kayak to prevent water from getting inside, very handy!).  Our guide mentioned that he also had waterproof jackets available for us, but we didn’t need them because the weather was so beautiful!  I brought a camera with me, and was determined to take photos even though it was recommended that I leave it behind, so I stuffed that into a ziplock bag to prevent water damage and stuck in my life jacket’s pocket.  It worked out great, and I got some really beautiful photos!  After we suited up, we were again driven to the place where we would actually launch (it was more sheltered than our first stop, and therefore less windy).

We got into our kayaks with our guide’s help, and we pushed off.  We spent a good few hours out on the water kayaking between beautiful islands, and saw some gorgeous birds that I hadn’t seen before, as well as some I had, like baby seagulls and an entire swan family.  We stopped for lunch on a beautiful island (which conveniently also had a lean-to and toilet facilities) to have a picnic lunch.  Our guide had brought sandwiches, and we hiked to the top of the mountain to eat them (I use the term mountain loosely, as the highest point in the Helsinki area is only about 20 m, and that’s where we were).  After we finished lunch, our guide shared with us some juice from a Finnish “super fruit” Sea Buckthorn so that we would get to try it.  It was extremely bitter, but with the same amount of vitamin C in one berry that’s in an entire orange, I’d say I could get on board with drinking it!  After we finished lunch, we got back in our kayaks and headed back towards the direction of our launch point.  It was a bit windy on our way back which meant some waves that didn’t seem so friendly, but our guide was fantastic with helping us navigate them, and we all arrived back safely.  He collected our e-mail addresses to e-mail the photos that he’d taken, and then delivered us back to the port.

As is probably obvious from the story I just told, I absolutely loved our guide.  He was so knowledgeable not only about kayaking, but also a bit about Finnish history, and he was really great about sharing some tidbits about Finnish culture.  He and his father own the company that took us out on this tour, and their business offers all kinds of kayaking services.  We had a chat on our way back to shore about visiting Helsinki, and I think that the guide really hit the nail on the head when he said that the best way to see Helsinki is to experience the nature surrounding it.  Kayaking through the Finnish fjords was one of the most unique traveling experiences I’ve ever had, and I’m so glad that I decided to try it.  If you’re in Helsinki, I would most definitely recommend going out on a kayaking tour, you certainly won’t regret it!

Company website: www.naturaviva.fi

Contact info: info@naturaviva.fi

+358(0) 10 292 4030

Coming Home and How to Make it Suck Less

Coming Home and How to Make it Suck Less

By Katie Ford

Leaving your study abroad experience may be one of the most difficult things that you have to do whilst studying abroad, and many people don’t realize just how difficult it’s actually going to be until it happens.  If you’ve been abroad for a semester or year, the challenge becomes infinitely greater, as you’ve “set up shop” in your new home for a fairly significant amount of time, and then you’re subsequently forced out of it and thrown right back into your old life, which by the way, isn’t going to be the same as when you left it in many ways.  When I studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence three years ago, it felt as though my heart was being ripped right out of my chest when my plane took off in Marseille, despite how happy I was to be going home to see my family.  And unfortunately, it doesn’t get much easier if you do it more than once.  Let me tell you a story about my three weeks spent back in Aix-en-Provence last summer (just over two years since I left the first time)…

It was Bastille Day 2013, and it was my last night in Aix-en-Provence.  I had already accepted an offer at Cardiff University to complete my Master’s degree, so although I knew I’d be close in a couple of months, it really wasn’t close enough for my taste.  I went to my friend Haley’s flat to meet up with her and our friend Michael for some drinks to start the night.  I probably had a few too many at that point, but then things really only started going downhill.  We proceeded to go and explore the festivities, drink some wine, and then, well, drink some more wine.  Despite the fact that I hadn’t yet packed for my return flight (which was around 8 am), I thought that this was a fantastic idea.  So after getting sufficiently intoxicated, I decided it was best to head home.  But first, it was obvious that I needed to stop for my last and final crepe (so tragic).  So I went to the crepe stand near la Rotonde which I knew and loved dearly, as I was a frequent customer, and ordered my usual.  I explained to the man that it was my last night in Aix and that I was very sad to leave, and he gave me my crepe for free as a farewell gift, and wished me safe travels.  I went to go sit at a bench nearby with my steaming hot crepe that was far too hot to immediately eat, and I started to cry.  And because I was already a bit drunk, this was a pretty extravagant cry session, which only added to the hilarity of the situation, as I was sitting on a bench with a crepe in the middle of the night crying.  Because it was Bastille Day, there were police vans set up in front of these particular benches, and one officer happened to be sitting in his van taking a break.  When he saw me start to bawl for no apparent reason, he came over and gave me some of his water and started to ask me what was wrong.  I explained to him how dearly I love this city, and how I didn’t want to leave.  After he asked where I was from (and I said New York, which ALWAYS causes confusion), he said how jealous he was that I get to go back to New York City (close enough…), and how he thought that I needed to better appreciate my home.  But anyway, after he calmed me down and my crepe cooled off enough for me to eat it, I got in a cab and headed back to my house to pack and sleep.

Now I realize this is a very long and potentially embarrassing story, but I think it brings up some really key points when it comes to studying abroad, and especially returning from a study abroad experience.  Firstly, I think it’s important to note that I went out to celebrate that night.  Remember to enjoy your study abroad experience, and appreciate where you are.  Stop to think about the truly amazing place that you’re currently living, and savor it until the very last second you’re there!  It’s so easy to get used to the place you’re living, and to forget how extraordinary it actually is!  As Bill Bryson said, “To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” Keep experiencing those things as if for the first time, you’ll appreciate those memories later.

The second key point is the one that that police officer brought up when he told me that he was jealous of me getting to go back to New York.  When you’re from a place that’s so close to something as amazing as New York City, it’s hard to appreciate it like other people might.  And this works for anyone, no matter where you’re from!  Do you know how many foreign students would kill for the opportunity to study in the middle of no where Kansas, just to see America?  Even if you’re leaving a place that you’ve fallen in love with, just remember the amazing place that you get to go back to, and go back to it with a new and refreshed heart and mind.  Not only will this ease the re-entry process, but it will just generally allow you to see and experience new things in your home, even if you’ve lived there all your life.

The third point isn’t so much to do with the story, but with the “sequel”.  Since I left Aix-en-Provence a little less than a year ago, I’ve moved to Europe, traveled to more than 15 different cities, and will travel to 6 more by the time the anniversary of this story comes up.  Included in that count is two trips to Aix-en-Provence, one weekend and one 3-week research adventure.  This only goes to show that you will find a way to come back if you really want to.  I was happy to find that Aix-en-Provence was almost exactly the same as I’d left it three years ago after I finished my first study abroad experience, and I love it just as deeply.  I see so many friends and peers who are figuring out ways to visit, work in, or study in the cities where they studied abroad, and it makes my heart so happy to see people following those dreams like I did.  But most importantly, don’t worry that the city you’ve grown to love will get up and walk away, it won’t!

So for those of you who just returned from your study abroad experience, welcome back home, enjoy it and appreciate every single second of it.  If any of you are having trouble adjusting, please feel free to reach out to me to talk and/or vent, or for advice.  I think very few people have had a rougher time with re-entry and reverse culture shock than I did, so I have a unique insight into this matter, and would absolutely love to help you in any way that I can 🙂

What is Culture?

What is Culture?

By Katie Ford
This past weekend I attended a conference in Paris held by the Associate of American Universities in France, and walked away with a handful of fantastic field contacts, and a whole lot of questions that still needed pondering.  The most troublesome, or most interesting, question that I continue to have is the question of culture, and how to best define it.
The question, “what is culture?” is one often posed by those working in the field of international education.  In fact, the answers to this question and how we react to them is vital to the success of our mission.  So it would make sense that there is a definition that is widely agreed upon in the field, right?  Not exactly.  Sure, there are some definitions or explanations that most do agree upon, but the idea of culture has changed so much since it was first introduced as a concept by anthropologists, that it is truly a challenge to precisely define it as a “thing” that can be explained, understood, or even immersed into.  Dictionary.com defines culture a the following: “the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group: the youth culture;the drug culture.”  For the purposes of study abroad, the ethnic group is most relevant.
I have lived in three cultures during my lifetime, based on the broad definition that culture is a set of values and other traits particular to a group of people, or the “ethnic group” as defined by dictionary.com.  These three cultures include American, British/Welsh, and French.  But that brings up an even broader question- what exactly is American or British or French culture?  Saying that I’ve lived solely in these three cultures does a disservice to the places I’ve actually lived, by suggesting that all of France, Britain, and America have only one culture.  So, if we can agree that there is no such this as an overarching American culture, but many small regional ones, then is my culture that of my hometown in New York?  Or is it possible that I have adopted the culture of central Pennsylvania where I attended university for four years?  When I was living in the south of France was I “immersed” into French culture or Provencal culture?  And living in Cardiff, is what I’m experience the culture of Britain or of Wales, or even just of Cardiff, as most will agree that Cardiff is significantly different than towns in north Wales?  It is these questions that haunt me as an international education professional, because if I am unable to define exactly what culture is, and exactly which culture exists in which places, how am I to advise students on the way to integrate into these cultures and compare them to their own?  Cultural integration is another tricky topic; many people study abroad with the intention of “immersing” themselves into their host culture.  But what exactly does it mean to immerse yourself into a culture?  Do you just need to make some local friends and eat the same food, or does immersion go deeper than that?  I would argue that in a semester, or even in a year, it’s impossible to adopt the entire value system of the host culture, so if that’s what immersion means then it probably isn’t even possible.
All of these questions are extremely relevant for both international education professionals, and for students who are about to embark on a study abroad experience.  Most students will be asked the question “what is culture?” before they depart, and they will be asked to consider the stereotypes of their host country, and how to dig deeper to find the truths about the country despite the stereotypes that they are aware of.  But the truth is, the answer to the culture question may be different for everyone, and what immersion into a culture actually means will also probably be different for everyone.  When traveling or living abroad, learning something about your host culture, whether that means the local art, language, habits, values, etc., is vital to understanding the place that your visiting, and will benefit you greatly in many ways.  Entering into these types of experiences with little or no expectations will also allow you to fully experience your new surroundings in a way that is untainted by your previous expectations.  Although it may be significantly more challenging, the element of surprise when you arrive in your host culture will allow you to discover things about that host culture that you may never have noticed otherwise if you’d gone abroad with knowledge already built up.  A certain amount of research about traditions and such will be helpful to you, of course, but those things must be used as a gateway to understanding the depths of your host culture while you are living there.
Fighting the Stereotypes

Fighting the Stereotypes

By Katie Ford

I’m traveling between the UK and France today, and as such, I have spent a lot of time sitting on buses and in the airport.  On my journey between Cardiff and Gatwick Airport, I overheard a Welsh man speaking about an “ugly” experience he’d had with several Americans.  The story was one I’ve heard many times before, and went something like this:

“They started asking me where I was from.  First they suggested Australia, and I said, ‘No, I’m from Wales’, and they replied, ‘Oh, so England?’”

The story was a bit longer, but it generally demonstrated two things to me.  First, this man was genuinely upset that the Americans he’d met didn’t even realize that his home country was its own country.  Second, the “ugly American” stereotype is alive and well, folks!

The “ugly American” is one which truly exceeds definition; he or she is an individual who demonstrates total ignorance about the world around him or her, and is one who doesn’t seem to be interested in actually learning about it.  Usually this person is rather loud and obnoxious, and expects people outside of the United States to cater to them and their cultural needs.  For example, an ugly American in France will walk into a café and automatically start speaking English to the staff, and won’t bother determining whether anyone there actually speaks English.  He or she might actually be upset if they don’t speak English… I mean, how dare they NOT speak MY language, right?

I am well aware that not all Americans are like this.  In fact, I would argue that most are not like this.  The problem, however, is that there are enough people like this for many in other countries to label Americans by these stereotypes.  There are some super easy ways to combat these stereotypes; remember, when you’re abroad you’re not only representing yourself, your representing everything that you’re affiliated with (including that handy USA passport).

  1. Make an effort to learn something about the current events and culture of the countries you’ll be visiting.  You never know when current event knowledge might come in handy, even if that just means having an interesting conversation with someone in a bar.  Learning some key facts about the culture will make your travels INFINITELY easier- you’ll know the proper way to dispense payment at a store or restaurant, the tipping etiquette, the appropriate noise level in a given establishment, and maybe even a couple key words/phrases in the local language.  All of the gestures go a very long way.
  2. Try to blend in!  The easiest way to do this is to avoid wearing clothing with words in English or recognizable American brands.  American Eagle hoodies are a pretty dead giveaway, as are university t-shirts and fraternity/sorority apparel.  Leave those things at home, you don’t want someone judging you by the t-shirt you chose to wear that day.
  3. Make an effort to meet people that aren’t American when you’re traveling.  The easiest way to ensure you’re not immersing yourself into the local culture is spending every waking moment you’re away from the States with other Americans.  You can do that at home, go make some new (foreign) friends- you might even learn something new!
  4. If you do come across a situation in which you’re a bit ignorant (it’s okay, you can’t know everything about everything!) like the Welshman situation above, apologize for not realizing your error, and ask for more information!  In that kind of situation, the person will likely be interested in explaining to you the difference between England and Wales, and it’ll be a great opportunity for you to learn something new and meet someone new.

Traveling is one of the best opportunities we, as Americans, have to change our stereotypes abroad.  Be an ambassador for all of the good aspects of American culture, and try to leave the bad ones behind 😉

Useful Tools for Language Learning

Useful Tools for Language Learning

By Chelsea Lachman

The ability to speak a language can make traveling and understanding cultures much easier. If you are lucky enough to receive an education involving a foreign language, then most likely you have some basics to whichever language you were taught. But if you never had that opportunity in school and you always wanted to learn, or if you wanted to hone your skills and practice another language, then there are quite a bit of options to pick from.

The most popular option is Rosetta Stone; this language learning program can be catered to extensive learning: it teaches reading, writing, and speaking. Or, upon installation and set-up of the program, you can toggle the program to specifically teach any combination of the above. The program is rather expensive, spanning from $274 (Memorial Day Sale) to over $600, but the program is efficient in teaching a foreign language, or 33 others. Not all languages are offered past Level 1, but many offer at least up to Level 3; each level is four chapters, and within each chapter there are four sessions. Rosetta Stone is rather user friendly and introduces vocabulary in topic sets. Overall, the ultimate decision lies between the cost of the software versus the efficiency of teaching a new language.

Another popular option, at least among the 20-something year olds, is DuoLingo, a free internet website used to teach French, Italian, English, Spanish, German, and a few others for a sum total of 12; however, not all languages are offered in full because they are still in development. The site allows forum conversations to ask questions, and speakers of the language you’re learning can respond and correct you; to repay the favor, you could even contribute to the courses in English to improve the program. DuoLingo is available as an app on smart phones and tablets.  It also allows for friends to follow and track each other’s progress. DuoLingo introduces vocab and grammar in relation to a topic, such as Travel, Places, Education, etc. Furthermore, the program works on points, promoting you for practicing, and in order to maintain your language, it shows which areas you need to review over a period of time. Overall, the program is easy to use and trains the learner in a variety of different vocabulary and grammar; on the downside, it requires internet service whereas Rosetta Stone is sourced from a CD.

Most smart phones and tablets offer an array of language learning apps, and often times these are geared towards more popular languages like Spanish and French. Finding a less popular language learning app is rather difficult. Busuu offers 12 languages total and offers free beginner levels for the language, but in order to proceed, you have to purchase the app. Living Language is another option, but it offers the first two lessons of the beginner level, to get past the second level, you have to purchase the app.

Obviously, picking a language learning program revolves around your language of interest (whether or not it is offered), the price, and usability of the program. In my personal usage, I have gone through all of the above four, and found Rosetta Stone really useful, but not practical due to the price, whereas DuoLingo has proven to be more affordable (it’s free!) and just as efficient in teaching a language (provided the language is already developed, like German).

http://www.rosettastone.com

http://www.duolingo.com