Lydia Chen is a senior studying Business Analytics, Management, and Finance. She is originally from New Milford, NJ and looks forward to moving to Boston this fall.
As a graduating senior, my number one piece of advice to all underclassmen is to take advantage of as many global opportunities in college as possible. Whether that’s going to Antarctica with the Wharton Leadership Ventures (freezing but worth it, in case you’re wondering), exploring innovation in San Francisco through WIEP, or participating in a WIP trip to Beijing, my Penn experience has been immensely enriched by the chance to learn outside of the classroom.
Looking back on the past four years, another highlight was my semester of language immersion spent studying abroad in the south of Spain. For students who decide to go abroad, the next piece of advice I’d give is “Don’t be a tourist!”. Wherever you’re studying, aim to integrate yourself into the local culture and get off the beaten path.
When I arrived in Sevilla last January, I knew that I didn’t want to simply live out the stereotypes by drinking sangria, eating tapas, and taking siestas all the time. Instead, my goal was to truly experience the city as a local would. To go beyond surface-level interactions and make the most of your time abroad, try the following:
Sign up for new activities. Beyond taking all my classes in Spanish, I joined the university choir, volunteered weekly at an elementary school, and tutored a neighbor in English. The beauty of spending a semester abroad is that you have time to make regular commitments, while still being able to travel on weekends. Ask your fellow students how they spend their free time and pay attention to the flyers on your new campus—you’re bound to find something that piques your interest!
Learn the language. For those in a non-English-speaking country, your interactions with others change when you’re able to converse in their native language. For me, this meant practicing with my host mom daily, listening to Spanish music, resisting the urge to speak to my American friends in English, and even texting in Spanish!
Participate in local festivals and traditions. Research beforehand any special events taking place and make sure you’re in town to experience them. In Sevilla, Semana Santa (Holy Week) and the Feria de Abril (April Fair) were incredible glimpses into longstanding local traditions.
Of course, that’s not to say that living in a foreign country will be easy. I made plenty of embarrassing grammatical errors in Spanish and also grappled with living in a society that’s significantly less racially diverse than the United States. Yet what I later realized is that these were opportunities to further engage with others by laughing off my mistakes or explaining my unique cultural background.
This mindset of traveling less like a tourist and more like a local doesn’t just apply to studying abroad—it’s also relevant to traveling in general. The next time you go somewhere new, ditch Uber and take public transportation; learn a few words and order your food in the local language; try Couchsurfing instead of Airbnb; put down the camera and spend a few hours unscheduled just exploring… you’ll be surprised at what you find.