Student Blogs & Vlogs | College Study Abroad Programs, IFSA-Butler
Advice to My Pre-IFSA Self That Future Students Are Welcome to Eavesdrop On
- Think about what degree of involvement you want with your family. Unless you really have a stick up your boot, most of the things on the family placement preference form—how big of a family, siblings or not, what age, location, pets—are not going to matter that much. The biggest variable in homestay experiences is what degree of involvement the student has with the family—how much interaction they have on a day-to-day basis and how often they do things together outside the home. Some students hardly talk to their families and others go to family reunions every weekend, and for any point along the spectrum there’s going to be someone that loves it that way and someone that hates it that way.
- Figure out why you want to study abroad. (And be honest with yourself.) Is it to improve your language skills? Is it to see a new part of the world? Is it to explore new forests and identify new species? Is it to learn about a new culture? Is it to live out a fantasy you won’t admit to yourself? Is it to meet new people? Is it to have fun? If you think about it, it’s probably all of those, and more. So the trick is to think about how much you want each thing, and how far you will go to get it. It’s possible they’ll conflict. Improving your language skills might not be fun. Exploring the rainforest might mean you miss out on meeting new people. It’s also possible that you won’t get everything you want in the exact proportion you want it. You also need to know that what you want may change, and that’s okay.
- Know what you want and ask for it. Academically, extracurricularly, psychologically… doesn’t matter. Don’t wait until you need something, either. Just think of anything you want, and ask for it. IFSA is a good place to start for just about everything. When I said I was frustrated with my Spanish class, they arranged for a tutor to work with me on more challenging material. When I wanted to do conservation-related volunteer work, they brought in a biologist to discuss options (actually, my friend was the one who asked for that one—I just happened to walk in on the meeting). When I said I wanted to talk to a therapist, they said “Is it urgent or can it wait until tomorrow?” I don’t know how they do it, but Tracy and Theresita make stuff happen. So ask yourself: What do you want to happen?
- Forget about culture shock. What the heck is that supposed to mean, anyway? That people are going to act so differently that you’re going to go crazy? You don’t need to worry about that. Most of the shocks you need to worry about are going to come from very real causes that have nothing to do with where you are. You are going to be away from your friends and family. You are going to be with a small people of new people—a group of people that may be different than you’re used to because they didn’t all self-select themselves to go to the same tiny liberal arts college in Minnesota. You’re going to be going to a new school with different standards for work, grading, and use of class time. You’re going to be surrounded with people who know each other well but don’t know you. You’re going to have a couple different schedule than you’re used to, and you’re going to have to form new habits. Any one of those things would be hard even if you were still in the States. So instead of waiting to be blindsided by bizarre customs or different values, acknowledge the concrete challenges you have to face and be smart about making plans to address them. Don’t forget what you need to be happy.
- Consider the benefits of speaking in English. I know you’re determined to speak as much Spanish as possible as often as possible. But you’ll have plenty of opportunities to speak Spanish. What you won’t have plenty of opportunities for is feeling really comfortable with other people. It was quite a while before I gave up on speaking Spanish to my IFSA compañeros, but when I did I wished I had much earlier. The relationships I had with them were completely different from the other relationships I formed over the semester, and they were very important to helping me deal with the challenges I faced. Sarcasm and sexual inuendo and political debate are precious things. Speaking English with a few people is not going to keep you from learning Spanish, and it does not make you a terrible person.
- Immerse yourself. I know you’re expecting to be immersed, to be forcefully plunged into the language and held down in it until you learn to breathe it out of sheer necessity to survive. Guess what? That’s not gonna happen. Sure, you’ll have to talk to bus drivers and cashiers, and you’ll have to listen to your professors and read your textbooks, but at the end of the day you can always hole up in your room. For hours. Facebook. YouTube. Breaking Bad on Netflix. Repeat. And it’s all in English. In other words, no one’s going to do the work for you. If you want to be immersed you have to run and jump in yourself. You have to reach out to your classmates. You have to start conversations with your host mom, and when she asks you a question you better think of something more to say than “Sí.” The terrible thing about Costa Ricans is they tend to be pretty polite. If you act like you want to be left alone because you don’t have the cajones to practice Spanish, they’re going to leave you alone. At the very least, turn on the Spanish subtitles when you’re watching Breaking Bad. Not only does it teach you about paraphrasing, but it also turns off the English subtitles that normally show when they’re bargaining with Mexican drug cartels, so you have to listen to the Spanish.
- You don’t have to become part of the culture to learn about it. I’m not sure exactly how time-traveling advice-giving works, but I hope I catch you before you and Mom go to the mall and freak out over how many of what color of what type of pants to buy. I know the IFSA information booklet said almost everyone wears pants in the city even during the summer, but guess what? You’re not even close to being almost everyone. Every single thing you do and say marks you as a gringo, and if you did and said nothing your physical features would still give you away. So stop worrying about fooling people, whether it’s the clothes you wear of the TV you watch (no matter how excited everyone else is, there is nothing that will not make soccer an incredibly boring sport). Even Tico culture is just that—a culture, a set of generalizations, not a book of unbreakable rules. There are plenty of Ticos that dress like gringos or otherwise aren’t in the majority in all things they do, so don’t give a single thought to “blending in” or “adopting the culture.”
- Ticos are worth your time. Talk to your Tico classmates and much as possible. Interacting with peers is the best way to learn the language, period. And it’s not because they use all the hip slang—I absolutely guarantee you that if you could translate “mae pura vida mae” into English it would sound stupid. It’s because you’re most likely to stretch yourself when you’re with your peers: there’s just enough peer pressure to hold you accountable to engage (can’t just stare at your beans like you’re having lunch with your host mom), while still being casual enough that you can take risks and make mistakes—it gives you one more thing to talk about.
- Take note of your Spanish ability when you are–what sorts of things you can and can’t do–so you’ll be able to gauge your progress at the end of the semester.
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