Congrats! You've just decided to join the club of adventurers/thrill-seekers/travelers (also known as unemployed college grads) who are crazy-or stupid-enough to hold off on a job and spend the little money they have exploring foreign places. How financially irresponsible and potentially dangerous! All jokes aside, this is BY FAR the best way to start off adulting. You've spent the past 20+ years following a very set path: school-college-graduation-job-etc.; which is all fine and dandy, but what if it's not for you?
For us, study abroad was life changing...like it actually changed our life plans. Caroline ended up switching majors, and I knew the moment I got back from Spain that I couldn't start my career without going back. From the end of our junior year until graduation, we plotted and planned our great European return. And now here we are. While our friends are drowning in hours of law homework, we're touring the walls of Dubrovnik. While they're venting about tough med school assignments, we're downing Prosecco in Italy. Most people tell us, "Wow, I'm so jealous. Hopefully I can travel too." YOU CAN! This is absolutely the best time to take a gap year/semester because there's this wonderful window where nothing is tying you down. But don't let social media fool you, it took a lot of research, planning, and summer slaving to make it all happen, but was 1000% worth it.
Still interested? Check out below to see how we made it back across the pond:
1. Go for it
Since this is the path less traveled for most college grads, you'll be hit with a lot of questions like: How will you afford it? Aren't you scared to go off on your own? Is it smart to put your career on hold? While you might not have the answers to these questions, be confident in your choice. If you feel excited to explore the world, then go for it! It's natural that you might second guess yourself when people seem against you-but they're just curious (because you're about to go off and do something cooler than sit in a stuffy office). Honestly, taking time off to volunteer, teach or do research in a foreign place will only boost your resume. Plus you'll be more ready than ever to buckle down in the job world once you've taken time for yourself.
2. Know what you want
Making a pro/con list like Rory Gilmore is the best way to start your program search. What's great (and also overwhelming) is the variety of options you have. Here are some questions to think on:
Teaching & host family fun
Caroline and I were pretty dead set on what we wanted, which made our program hunt a little easier. Here's roughly what our list looked like:
Fun memories in England and Croatia (non-Schengen countries)
When we first got accepted to teach abroad, we were so excited to get back to Europe that we immediately booked our plane tickets. We had it all planned out - a month of traveling before making our way to Spain. Visa? No problem. We're volunteering, so we'll just go to the Spanish consulate and apply. Well, we got denied because our program was less than 90 days, which technically means we don't need a visa. All our plans went straight out the window. How do we make the timing work? Can we still travel?
After a small panic attack in Millenium Park, we started doing our research about how to get around the problem of not having a visa. Frustratingly, there wasn't much information about how to do it. Even more frustrating, everything we did find about staying more than 90 days in the Schengen Zone said it was tricky. Honestly, that's pretty accurate. I definitely would not recommend overstaying, but there are ways to make the timing work.
What is the Schengen Zone?
Before I go any further, let's talk about what the Schengen Zone is because I think that can be the most confusing thing for people. There's no set rhyme or reason for what countries are part of it or which aren't. The Schengen Zone is made up of 26 European countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lichtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Norway, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.
Why is this important? These 26 countries have come to an agreement that you can travel freely between them, so you don't need extra visas or even border control to go from country to country. So it's super easy and cheap to bounce between them. What are the rules? You can only stay in the Schengen Zone for 90 days within a 180 day period. This just means that you can travel around freely for 3 months out of a 6 month window. The tricky part? The days don't reset just because you leave the Schengen. So if I travel around Europe for 3 months, go home for a month and then go back, I'm now traveling illegally.
I think a lot of times hostels get a bad rap as being grungy, cheap places that backpackers stay when their budget is small. I will admit, when I first heard friends talk about staying in a hostel a few years ago, I used to imagine army barracks full of people in a cramped, dirty room (clearly my imagination is a bit dramatic). During our first trip abroad, we decided to put these impressions to the test. Our experience wasn't amazing (we froze under a tiny blanket), but it was better than I had expected. Since we were traveling for a much longer period on this trip, and we were trying to be as economically efficient as possible (that's the nice way of saying we're cheap), we gave hostels another shot. After a month of traveling, we've stayed in four and plan on staying in more.
Here's the truth about what staying in a hostel is really like:
Unless you plan on dishing out a lot of money, you will probably stay in an 8, 10, or even 12 person room and will most likely share a bathroom. If you've ever lived in a college dorm or sorority house, it's pretty much the same (and you're really only using your room to sleep while traveling anyway right?).
Everyone who studied or will be studying abroad has the same panicked feeling before they leave: Will you remember everything? What if it’s not what you expect? How will you survive in a foreign country? Even though we've already spend a semester abroad, we still had this feeling when getting ready to head back to Europe, so like most millennials, we jumped on the internet to look for a few tips.
And we were a bit disappointed by some of the articles we found. "Bring a Suitcase" and "Remember Your Passport" were a few that made the list. And while these are definitely important things to remember, we felt a lot of lists left out important things that travel abroad newbies may have no idea about. So check out our list of actual essentials:
Studying abroad is such a unique experience; it’s easy to form friendships because everyone is in the same boat – a new country, new culture, and no familiar faces. Being forced to adapt to a new culture and figure out how to live on your own can create strong friendships that are so incredibly different from those you have back home (this is how Lexa and I first met and became friends).
So you spend a semester (or a year) getting to know these people, and they may end up being some of your best friends. But what happens when the semester is over and everyone goes home? You say your goodbyes and cry while making promises to stay in touch. It’s easy to say you’ll stay close, but how do you keep these friendships going despite thousands of miles, an ocean, and a killer time difference?....
If you’re anything like me, you’re probably running around like crazy, stressed about getting everything done and just trying to make it through the day. As these last few week before graduation speed by, I find myself nostalgic for the days of study abroad or planning the next trip - booking flights, marking maps, budgeting. I’m so busy looking forward to the beautiful sights, tasty food, and mass amounts of culture that I forget to appreciate the days flying by as the end of school approaches. 1 more paper, 2 speeches, 4 finals and then I walk across that stage (and try not to trip), accept my diploma, take more photos than I can count and prepare to set off on my next big adventure.
But then one evening, I’m walking home and BOOM a sunset like this stares me in the face, and I realize how much beauty I’ve been missing right here in my backyard while I’m dreaming of “better” places. I look up and I notice that the brown, dead grass has turned into a field of wildflowers (or what some people might refer to as weeds). All around me is a sea of purples and yellows. And while yes, I will never turn down a semester in Europe for a semester in Indianapolis, I am struck by how hectic and out of focus I sometimes let life get....
Fell in love with Madrid on Day 1
You’ve just landed back in your home country, excited to run into your family’s arms and stuff your face with home-cooked food. But, as you step off the plane, a strange feeling runs through your body-one of nostalgia, sadness and confusion. Is it normal to feel guilty about not wanting to return home? YES. You’ve just had a life-changing experience full of traveling, nightlife adventures and absolute freedom.
So I’m going to hit you with the hard truth: it sucks. That first month home I poured over my pictures from abroad reliving the person I became and was now trying to hold on to. One thing I wish I had was someone to help me through this transition. Here’s a list of truths to be ready for:
Sounds pretty gloomy huh? Don't worry, we've also got some tips to make the transition home go smoother....
Praying our bags don't weigh over the carry-on limit. Fingers crossed!
Sitting around and trying to plan four months-worth of trips was overwhelming for me. I’d never even booked my own flight and now here I was trying to explore the continent. After one trip, I loved designing my own itineraries and developing my own travel style. So how do you start planning your first weekend trips?...
I'm sure anyone who has majored/minored in a second language or is bilingual has been asked countless times, "so are you fluent?" This is always someone’s first question when he/she learns that I speak German and Spanish. Each time I hesitate with my answer. How do I explain my level of fluency?
Since birth, I’ve heard German spoken to me by my dad’s family. On family vacations in Stuttgart, I immersed myself in the culture and easily picked up on the accent. Through listening and informal conversations, I developed a natural confidence speaking with natives. I can speak, read and understand without a problem.
Writing, however, is a different story. With hardly any grammar training, it’s tough for me to put together a sentence without second guessing myself. Is the article dative? How does that change the ending to my verb? Just the opposite is true for Spanish. With over 8 years of classes from elementary school to college, I have no problem with grammar or writing. But speaking? No thank you....