tips for Thanksgiving and beyond with study abroad

thanksgiving lunch

Author: Tina Marisa Rocchio

Thanksgiving weekend means a lot of things to American families across the world. One thing happening in millions of homes this Thanksgiving weekend is the return of college & university students with laundry and writing assignments, exhausted from the first few months on campus and daunted by the beginning of exam-prep. 

I spent nearly fifteen years as the Director of several different programs in Italy for The College of Global Studies at Arcadia University. Students came to spend a semester – or, on rare occasions, a year – in one of our five sites. 

Thanksgiving is significant to different factions of the study abroad world for different reasons.  For our office in Rome, we knew that our student numbers for the incoming Spring term would be confirmed in the days immediately following Thanksgiving. We have rough estimates leading up to the holiday, but only after lengthy conversations around the dinner table over turkey and pie would the final deposits roll in. Only then could we sign housing contracts, create the course schedules and semester calendar.

For our fall semester students in Italy, Thanksgiving marked the point when they had finally gotten used to being in their adopted neighborhood, city, and country. When they would say that coming back to their shared accommodation from a weekend away, felt like coming home. They would have gotten used to local customs that made absolutely no sense to them back in the beginning of September. Some would begin to converse in the local language and feel suddenly bold and empowered in a way they never thought possible. They’d look different, too, less obviously from elsewhere, more and more like they belong. 

As they scour local markets like Borough Market in London looking for ingredients at least somewhat similar to their family’s traditional Thanksgiving mainstays so they could re-create it with their friends, they begin to dread the program’s end date; uncertain what to feel anxious about first. There are exams coming up; there are people and places they’ve grown to love who they don’t want to have to say goodbye to. The ultimate dichotomy presents itself: they can’t wait to get home for Christmas break (students with pets, I always found, felt this even more acutely) but they also don’t want to leave. 

Inevitably, the one thing almost every single student we hosted said towards the end of their semester? “I wish I hadn’t travelled as much. I wish I’d explored locally more.” Or for those who had come with friends from home, “I wish I hadn’t hung out with the people I came with; I wish I’d branched out.”

The essence of study abroad is just that: branching out. Stretching your mind and your heart to quietly observe those around you, how they move through their day, where their values lie, what their priorities are. Particularly in the digital age, you’ll share many of the same ideas and customs, likes and dislikes as your counterparts in your host city. But, upon further inspection and close observation, differences will become clear. And you will slowly arrive at the correct assumption that different is neither better nor worse, it’s simply different. These are the words my big brother sent me off to Rome with on my first experience as an international student at the age of eighteen. These are the same words I repeated to each of my incoming cohorts of students, three times a year in at least as many destinations for nearly fifteen years.

This Thanksgiving, as overseas travel is no longer restricted, there will be thousands of students – most in their sophomore or junior year – who will be looking forward to the Spring term abroad. After weeks or months or even years of planning, they’ll have finally received their acceptance letters. As alluded above, many confirm immediately upon receiving those letters, yet a growing number do so just after Thanksgiving. With all the economic insecurity, it is no wonder some families postpone the decision right up to the deadline.link 

According to this year’s IIE Open Doors report, most will be headed to one of the three most popular destinations for study abroad: Italy, Spain, or the UK. If you are among the thousands of American students heading to Europe (or the recently Brexited-UK), I have three bits of advice for you (there is always more but I’ll limit myself here).  

  • While this may not be your first time abroad and will most certainly not be your last, it may be the only time you live abroad. Heed what your predecessors say at the end of the semester about wishing they’d travelled less. Don’t plan to be away every weekend, and don’t make those plans before you’ve even left the US. Wait until you are in your new home and have gotten a feel for things. You’ll make new friends right away who may become exciting travel buddies. What’s more, your program may already have embedded excursions to great places in your chosen country that you won’t want to miss. The program staff and local students will fill your head with ideas of where to go for the best of everything. Trust that you’ll be in a better position to plan your down time only once you’ve reached your destination and met your peers and program providers.
  • Before you even enter the airport, pull on that invisible traveler’s cap, put down your phone, and be aware of everything that’s going on around you. Once you arrive, watch how locals engage with one another, how they socialize, where they gather. Quiet, humble observation is your dearest friend for the first few days – even weeks – of your program. Go to orientation and follow the wisdom shared by local staff. Trust me, no one goes into that line of work for the money; they love what they do, and they are absolutely 100% dedicated to providing you with the tools to have a wonderful and safe semester. My most successful students were those who threw themselves into all we had to offer; they are also the ones who are now living exciting international lives, working for global organizations.
  • Lastly, leave two-thirds of everything you’ve packed behind. Split the remaining third into two half-empty suitcases, the very lightweight, hard-shell type with four wheels. You’ll thank me forever for that advice.

At mindhamok we are here with you and for you as always, put your mind in a hammock and remember that it’s your journey. Check out our Making Friends blog on tips to meet friends whilst you explore.

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