What I Wish I Knew About Studying Abroad

Contributing writer Maddie Hahm ’24 discusses her current experience studying abroad and what she wished she knew before going.

What I Wish I Knew About Studying Abroad
Maddie Hahm's '24 experience in Spain has been filled with as many cultural differences and unexpected adjustments as beautiful sights and new experiences. Graphic courtesy of Nina Aagaard '26.

When it comes to studying abroad, I think that the U.S. has some very real misconceptions about the entire process. From what I’ve gathered, many people assume that once you commit to a program, you will proceed to embark on a larger-than-life journey to the country of your dreams, where you will spend the entire semester partying, sight-seeing, and occasionally attending class—and then return many months later a changed person with, if you’re lucky, a foreign romance story to tell.

That has not been my experience.

I have been living abroad in Spain now for a little over a month, and the adjustment has been anything but easy. In the short time that I’ve been here, I have had to adapt to an entirely new culture, rewire my brain to a different language, alter my sleep schedule, navigate a foreign school system, make friends, and much more. There are so many aspects to being here that I wish I had known about prior to leaving the U.S.

First of all, though this might sound naive, I was taken aback at the sheer number of cultural barriers that exist between the United States and Spain. There are so many subtle differences between our two countries that I couldn’t have possibly prepared myself for before arriving. For instance, if you want to ride the metro here, you have to physically open the doors yourself in order to enter. It took me a few minutes of wandering aimlessly along the metro platform, wondering how so many train doors could possibly be malfunctioning at once, before I realized my mistake.

Additionally, unlike what some people might tell you, studying abroad can actually be incredibly isolating. In my head, I had this silly fantasy that, once I arrived in Spain, I would immediately become friends with the other students in my program — at the very least, I thought that having a common nationality would unite us.

But finding my place amongst this group has been unforeseeably challenging. Since I’m participating in a program run through a specific “host” university, the majority of the people in attendance are students from that school who already know one another. Unlike me, they have long-standing relationships with each other, and it feels awkward to try to insert myself into their lives, especially in my non-native language.

Still, in my opinion, the most complicated, uncomfortable, and ostracizing part of the entire abroad experience is, — and no surprise here, — money. (As The Wu-Tang Clan once so eloquently put it, cash truly does rule everything around us.)

Every weekend, the majority of my program’s members pack up their things, hop on a plane or bus, and then take a vacation to some beautiful (but pricey) European landmark that I would love to visit with them but can’t afford. The thing that frustrates me the most isn’t the fact that I don’t have the same amount of money in my bank account or even that these students are taking regular trips; discrepancies between class and socioeconomic status have always existed in a capitalistic society and will most likely persist for generations to come. (And I do have some plans to travel alone, staying in hostels and taking the cheap red-eyes.) What I can’t stand is the fact that I’m missing out on these bonding opportunities with the other students, who seem to be making core memories and building friendships on these weekly excursions together, while I, on the other hand, am not.

And, to clarify, it’s not like any of my peers are doing anything wrong or outwardly disrespectful. If they want to take trips on the weekends, they should be able to, and it’s none of my business. In fact, some of them have even invited me to join in on their excursions, which is thoughtful. However, because I cannot afford the Airbnb’s, the airplane tickets, the food, and all of the other small traveling fees, I always have to decline, making my chances of being asked again increasingly less likely. Instead, I have to be content with knowing that while they are off in some incredible new city, I made the “non-choice” choice to stay behind and work — that I can only live vicariously through their many Instagram posts.

This isn’t to say that I am not enjoying being in Spain or that I don’t feel like I am gaining something valuable from the experience. I would still highly recommend a semester abroad, and I already have a long list of unforgettable experiences that I’ve stored away in my brain. Still, I do wish I had known a little bit more about what exactly I was getting myself into before I said goodbye to my friends, my family, and my home. More importantly, I wish that I had been able to see that leaving the U.S. didn’t mean leaving behind its societal inequities.

I guess I’ll just have to wait and see how this semester unfolds. I am, after all, only a month into this entire experience. Instead of worrying about what the other people in my program are doing, I’m going to focus on what I can control: myself. Because, at the end of the day, I am still in Spain. And, who’s to say what the future holds? Maybe a European love story is still in the cards for me … your guess is as good as mine.