One faded red Munster Province rugby t-shirt. A half-finished box of Barry’s Irish Breakfast tea bags. The musty wool of two Aran Islands mittens. And 10,000 calories of battered sausage. These are the souvenirs I brought back with me from a semester of study abroad at the University of Limerick, Ireland.
I landed at Shannon International Airport on a dreary February day, unaware of how big the world was, or how handy a collapsible umbrella could be. In the proceeding four months, I wore out the kitchen kettle, wrote essays on the Irish Civil War and buried a piece of my heart in the loamy soil of County Galway. The process of learning in a foreign environment seemed piecemeal at the time.
Now, though that was several years ago, I realize that the things I carried home were not just physical knick knacks, but qualities I carry still: confidence, curiosity, and a passion for humanity.
These are the real souvenirs of a study abroad program. As you look forward to your own academic adventures in some exotic scene, don’t be afraid to collect them with all the fervor you can. The following items may lose their newness over time, but the meanings behind them will never fade.
Your souvenir checklist:
1. An item branded by a campus club. Study sessions and exploratory weekends will fill up your calender; but don’t forget that this university is your home for the next few months, and one of the best ways to create a sense of belonging is to get involved with a campus club. Join a rec sports team, sign up for the student newspaper or audition for the next drama production. Most schools have an International Student’s group, where you can meet other study abroaders and participate in special field trips and events. Dedicate even one hour of the week to an extracurricular group, and you’ll find yourself enjoying the thick of campus life.
2. A book in the local language. Language is an intrinsic part of any culture, so it’s natural that you’ll pick up a few verb conjugations and how to get directions to the toilet. Listen to the words around you. Ask questions, make lists of vocabulary, sign off e-mail updates with local proverbs. Don’t worry about fluency, because simply trying to understand the local language is a direct route to learning. Maybe you never grasp more than the basic story of a two page comic book, but your pride in trying will look just as good on the bookshelf back home.
3. Memories from a free meal. This involves saying ‘Yes’ to an invitation. At some point during your study program, you’ll have the chance to dine out. It could be dinner with a friend’s family, something sponsored by a student group or even a date. Not only does this offer a chance to eat something nicer than the 2 minute noodles you’ve been surviving on, but it means getting off campus and seeing how the locals have supper. Show your gratitude by cleaning the plate and appreciating this piece of normal life.
4. The recipe of a favorite dish. Now that you’ve dined and devoured dishes from the national menu (however cheap or simple they may be), which one will you be craving after you leave this place? Collect your favorite recipes and learn to cook them on your own. I’ve attempted thirty different recipes for soda bread; and, though none will ever taste as perfect as the thick brown loaves we used to buy from the shops, they still remind me of my time in Ireland. Sharing these flavors with the folks back home is also a great way to introduce them to your study abroad experience.
5. Tickets from the national bus line. No one can study all the time! So on the weekends, hop onto the bus and explore the sites nearby. Buses are often cheaper than domestic trains and airplanes, and give you a much slower glimpse of the passing landscape. While it’s normal to dream of checking off other countries from your bucket list, make time to see the country you’re studying in first. It will help you pick up the language, respect the culture and may even come in handy for a test or paper at school.
6. Tickets from a cheap airline. Depending on where you study, you might be conveniently located to get a few other international stamps in your passport. Find out which airlines offer cheap flights in the area (like Ryanair in Europe. Jetstar in the South Pacific or AirAsia in Asia). These companies tend to run cheap flights or offer amazing sale prices, if you’re willing to travel without much forewarning. Just read the fine print, because many low cost airlines make up for inexpensive tickets by adding in loads of secret fees.
7. A costume piece from a traditional festival. Even if it’s only the plain green shirt you bought to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin, go out of your way to dress for the occasion. Holidays and festivals allow you to jump into the culture in extra-special ways. Find out how the natives commemorate national events, and you’ll find out how past and present merge for the patriotic peoples around you. Plus, you’ll have a grand story for telling later.
8. One album or playlist from a concert or festival. Music can bring back memories of your study abroad experience faster than anything else. While you’ll be trading songs and artists with fellow classmates from around the world, keep an ear open for popular local musicians. They might not be jamming on traditional folk instruments, but will still be describing your host country in unique detail. Any chance you can get tickets to a performance? Or, better yet, a music festival highlighting national artists?
9. A few extra international Facebook friends. For all the negative things you can say about social media, here’s one good thing: you can easily stay in touch with the international friends you’ve met over the past months. Post reminders of inside jokes or share photos; who knows, this might even be the perfect way to plan your next trip abroad!
10. (At least) One passing grade. Just to prove that you’ve learned more than a slew of new vocab words or the lyrics of a national pop artist: why not aim to bring home a passing grade in at least one subject? Merely the act of studying in a foreign culture is an educational challenge. Beside gaining a deeper insight on the workings of academia in your temporary country, you’ll also pursue new subjects, or be taught old subjects in a brand new way. Nothing shows an open mind better than a positive grade.
11. A (small) scar. Be careful with this one! I’m not thinking of an embarrassing memento from a rowdy night out, but a reminder of your physical presence in this place. Maybe it’s from that rec sports team you joined, or maybe that weekend at the beach left a peculiar sun mark on your shoulder. Whatever it is, it proves that you haven’t spent the past months tucked away in a corner of the library, but have been busy with outdoor adventures.
12. A padded resume. As your time abroad winds down, consider all the incredible bullet points you can now add to your resume. Subjects studied and clubs joined; languages learned and certificates earned. Attending school in a foreign country is not just a short-term occupation, but one that can influence your future in unseen ways. Potential employers will recognize that these past months have taught you adaptability, humility and awesome interpersonal skills.
13. A broken heart. This is, a best friend assured me, the ultimate object of any foreign journey. Yes, it sucks and yes, she was probably dreaming of some dark-haired Irish lad, but – if I understood her correctly – what she meant was that this is the largest, truest emotional gift you can wrest from a semester overseas. It means that you have thrown yourself fully into your new environment, given yourself over to the subtle changes of the experience and shared your emotions generously with everyone you met. Whether you lose your heart to a person or a place does not matter; what matters it that you have the courage to let it go.
What are the best souvenirs you’ve brought back from studying abroad?
(For more study abroad checklists: Credit Card Insider can help sort out finances, so you don’t add cut-up credit card to you souvenir list; GoAbroad has suggestions for making the most of those weekends away; and GoOverseas will tell you how to maximize your study abroad experiences on the resume, once you get back home).