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  • Writer's pictureOlivia Porta

Eight Things to Know Before Studying Abroad

In Ghent, Belgium

I studied abroad during the fall semester of 2023 in Florence, Italy. I’ve known I wanted to study abroad since high school and considered international programs while applying. Studying abroad was different than I expected, but I would do it again a thousand times over. Without further ado, here are eight pieces of advice I wish I had received before pursuing this international adventure. 


#1 Choose a location that has courses applicable to your major.

You may already know where you want to study abroad, and you may not. To make your decision easier, try perusing through the course catalog and look at what courses have been historically offered by location. Do these courses align with your degree requirements? If not, are you prepared to adjust your other semesters to make up for an influx of elective credits? 

You will have different options available depending on your college or university. Some larger institutions like NYU or UCLA will have more of their own locations whereas smaller institutions often have fewer programs. However, that does not necessarily mean you have to choose from a select few. If your college or university lacks a certain destination you would like to pursue, there is often the option of studying abroad through a different university or program. These opportunities would have to be supported by your college or university, and it is also important to remember that going this route might mean taking your study abroad courses Pass/Fail. 

Taking your courses Pass/Fail provides you with more freedom to explore your new environment and learn by living. You will have more time to travel, explore, and socialize. However, if you have graduation requirements that demand a specific grade, then Pass/Fail courses may not count towards your degree and may put you behind.

#2 Gather your documents early.

Your experience applying for a student visa will vary depending on your chosen destination. The Italian Consulate of New York is renowned for being frustratingly slow, so much so that some universities account for it through their programs and request student documents earlier than other programs. Contrastingly, the German Consulate is startlingly efficient. I had a friend study abroad in Berlin while I was in Florence, and they had their documents processed and returned in a month. 

If you do not live near your university, taking your important documents with you the semester before you plan to study abroad is a good idea. These documents include things like your passport, study abroad acceptance letter, proof of health insurance, and proof of financial means. For many locations, you must have a certain amount of money in your bank account, and that amount varies depending on your chosen location. The purpose of this is to prove that you can take care of yourself during your semester away.

#3 Stock up on your medications.

If you are currently taking any medications or intend on taking medications during your semester abroad, you need to make an appointment with your physician and request a semester-long supply. Refilling a long-term prescription while abroad can be a long and difficult process. More importantly, it is avoidable. 

It is also a good idea to make a medicine pack with over-the-counter medications to bring with you. These medications may require a prescription in your study abroad location and could be difficult to get. If you live in the United States, you may be used to medicating a cold and pushing through your day as if you aren’t actually sick. This is not the cultural reality in most other countries, and you may be expected to sit back and allow the sickness to run its’ course. This process may cause unnecessary stress if you are not used to it.

#4 Make sure you are up to date on all vaccinations.

This tidbit of advice is related to point number three. Your college or university should provide a list of all the vaccinations you must be up to date on for your specific destination. Regardless, it is generally a good idea to do some research for yourself and schedule your vaccinations as soon as possible so you don’t have to worry about it later. Some of the most common requirements are being up to date on the flu, COVID-19, mumps, rubella, measles, and meningitis vaccinations. 

If you have historically had adverse reactions to specific vaccinations (like me) then it may be a good idea to schedule them when you know you’ll have time to recover. I had three vaccinations during spring break and spent most of my time off lying pitifully on my couch while watching Criminal Minds reruns.

#5 Consider applying for a student credit card that does not charge an international fee.

Most domestic debit cards will charge a fee when that card is used internationally. You could minimize this by taking out cash from an ATM, but a way to completely bypass that fee is to find and apply to a student credit card that does not take a percentage on top of every transaction. I used Capital One’s SavorOne Rewards for Students card. It offers cash back on transactions related to grocery shopping and eating at restaurants, which was a great perk for a student like me who was in the food capital of Europe. There are plenty of cards out there; research to find the one that will work the best for you and your program. 

#6 Schedule times during the week to speak to your loved ones.

One of Many Pizzas I Ate in Florence

Calculate the time difference between your current and future destinations and schedule times to speak to your friends and family. It is way too easy to lose touch with those we care about when by the time you wake up they’re getting into bed, so it’s important to put effort into those relationships while you’re away. Living in a new country, even if it’s for a short time, can be isolating. Remembering that there are people out there who care about you helps with the homesickness you may experience.

#7 Try to be a model citizen.

The day before we would have a substitute teacher, my high school history teacher would always sit us down and tell us to “bring out the fine china.” This meant to be on our best behavior. Although our teacher knew us and knew that one day of poor behavior did not necessarily reflect our character, the substitute teacher did not. Their only impression of us will be how we behave on that one day, which in turn reflects on the school and affects their future choice of substitute teaching for that school district again. International students represent their country when they enter a new place, and it is our responsibility as students to be conscientious of how we behave and do our best to adhere to social norms.

Some social customs may seem strange to you, but it is important to remember that studying abroad is a privilege in the first place and it is not your job to change a country that you are a guest in. You wouldn’t come to someone’s house for dinner and refuse to take off your shoes when you walk in the door. That being said, this advice does not apply to dangerous situations. Above all else, stay safe.

#8 Be conscious that everyone's experience abroad is different.

Fun With Friends Abroad!

Try not to go into this experience with sweeping expectations. You may meet your best friend, fall in love, and go on incredible adventures, but you may not, and that’s okay. You don’t need to accomplish those things for this experience to be worthwhile. Simply enjoy what comes and live in the moment while it lasts. 

Depending on your destination and identity, you may face different challenges than your peers. I had a very positive experience overall, but I am also a white woman with family in Italy. Some of the friends I made during my semester abroad expressed their disappointment with how they were treated by locals based on their race and religion. My university has resources in place to support students who have experienced discrimination or harassment, but those resources do not prevent the inciting incident from taking place. Discrimination, including but not limited to, that is based on race, gender, religion, nationality, and/or sexuality is unacceptable in any context. The purpose of this point is to act as a warning to students to be conscious of the environment they are potentially entering.


Studying abroad isn’t easy. There’s a mountain of paperwork, (usually) a language barrier, and personalized challenges depending on who you are, where you’re from, and where you’re going. Studying abroad is also a once-in-a-lifetime experience that can’t be recreated at any other point in your academic and professional career. Personal growth is at the core of the college experience, and there is no avoiding it abroad. If you are looking for a push, here it is. 

Spread your paper wings,

Olivia Porta

C.I.A. (Creative Intern Assistant)

NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study

Class of 2025

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