Cultural Preparation for Studying Abroad

Once you’ve got everything set up to hit the road for study abroad—your classes are selected, your housing is arranged, and you’ve got more “how to pack when going abroad” lists than you know what to do with, you probably still have some time and enthusiasm before your journey begins.


If at all possible, you should try to get a jumpstart on learning about the history and culture of the place you’re about to call your temporary home. Think about it as a kind of cultural acquaintance-making. You will by no means be able to learn everything about a country before you go. But some exploration ahead of time will mean you are better prepared and will have more context to understand the experiences in your new home. And, if you’re like me, you’ll have more fun—you’ll start from a position of some knowledge, which means you will, at the very least, be able to ask more informed questions.

So, how do you start interacting with your host country’s culture before you go?

Here’s a simple start:

  • Watch movies from that country.
  • Follow that country’s sports teams.
  • Check out TripAdvisor, LonelyPlanet, and other guides for tourists (you’ll get an overview of the most interesting places to visit).
  • Learn something about the history (more than Wikipedia).
  • Start reading the news in your new hometown.
  • Follow some locals on social media.
  • Read books from that country and region (translated if necessary).

There’s no reason this exercise should be anything but fun. Follow whatever your normal interests would be—it’s just as “useful” to start listening to the BBC as it is to start watching Mexican soap operas (depending, of course, on your location). You don’t have to become a different person when you go abroad, just try to find ways to fit your passions into a new context.

Here are 7 additional tips for pre-departure cultural immersion.

1. Learn the language

If you are going to a country where you do not speak the language, this advice sort of goes without saying. Any small amount of progress made before you go will have an enormous positive impact on your experiences in your host country. Put in the time to study the language before you go.

If you are going to a country where they speak your language…you can safely assume there will be a few differences. Have some fun looking around online for differences in word usage and slang. The first time I was told to put something in the hot press in Ireland, I was more baffled than I can say. Another friend had the lamentable experience of slipping on some stairs in a pub in Northern Ireland and announcing “I think I bruised my fanny.” (If you don’t get the joke… I’ll let you look up that little linguistic difference on your own time).

One of the best parts of studying abroad is the chance to interact with a foreign culture. It’s a lot easier to do that if you can conveniently navigate and functionally communicate.

2. Listen to local radio/watch local TV 

Through the magic of the internet, you have access to TV, radio, and podcasts from around the world. This can be such a fun way of launching an experience abroad—do some looking around to find out what’s popular in your study abroad culture and start watching and listening before you go. This will give you common points of reference with locals when you arrive. It will help with cultural and linguistic understanding (including help with accents!) as well as giving you conversation starters once you settle in. 

3. Relocate your hobbies

It is entirely probable that your hobbies also exist in your future host country. Check out your local community for sports, classes, music, or whatever else you’re interested in. Your university will also have student organizations that will help you settle in. Some options might be:

  • “Drop in” sports activities or local clubs, from soccer to disc golf.
  • Groups on or a local equivalent, for everything from film enthusiasts to knitters.
  • Book clubs and writing clubs—either run by locals for locals (and hopefully you’ll feel welcome), OR groups for ex-pats, which is another interesting way to experience a new place.
  • Activism and social causes—what’s being done locally on issues you care about?
  • Religious associations often welcome international students, and you can often connect before you go.

By checking out these kinds of activities in a new context, you’ll open a different kind of window into a culture. I guarantee that the experience of being in one of these groups or activities will be different abroad than it is at home. But by transferring your experience and skills from one setting to another, you can plan on at least feeling some level of confidence in your abilities and skills…even if the context is completely foreign.

4. What do the locals do?

Learning traditional weaving from indigenous Guatemalan women in Quetzaltenango in 2009. 

Sometimes this is hard to find out before you get to a place. The tourism websites are frequently unhelpful in this arena—you will be going to live for a short time, rather than just passing through as a tourist. Mostly, of course, the locals do what locals do anywhere—they spend time with their family and friends, they work and they study, and they relax. One key way you can access a new culture is by finding out what they do to relax. Is there some activity or pattern you anticipate that you would like to tie in to? Some game commonly played or a sport you’ve never heard of before?

If you know ahead of time, more opportunities will come your way.  

5. Learn the history of one local thing

As you’re looking into the history, culture, and passtimes of this place, see if something catches your eye as an interest. Maybe it’s a local drink or style of clothes. Maybe it’s an interest in horseracing or a national obsession with a certain sport. Maybe it’s a holiday you’ve never heard of, or a brand you know well.

Whatever this “thing” is, take some time to learn about it. This will give you a conversation starter when you arrive—something that honestly interests you and you can ask informed questions about. DO NOT study up on this so you can lecture the locals. Instead, make it an exercise in discovery. What can you learn online? How is that different from what the locals tell you? Do different parts of the community tell the story differently?

A great way to start a conversation with anyone (taxi driver, host family, person sitting next to you on the train…) is to say “I’m really interested in _____. I learned a little bit about it. What do you think?”

6. Learn the “sore points” in local history.

Everywhere you go will have baggage of some kind. It’s a good idea to learn some of the conflict and political history before you go. Some of this is to avoid offending people (you don’t want to “lead” with painful questions if you can help it—probably best not to innocently drop a bombshell of a conversation starter (some examples from places I know: perhaps don’t start a conversation in Chile about Pinochet, the IRA in Northern Ireland, school shootings in the USA, the history of colonialism in Belgium, the 2009 coup d'état in Honduras, or immigration in Arizona).

These are good and interesting topics for conversations. They might be some of the best things you can learn about while abroad. But it’s not a place you should start. And it might be that casual comments have unintended references to events or ideologies that are painful to whoever you’re speaking with.

Do a bit of targeted research and learn about key flashpoints in the local area. Take social cues from those around you, and proceed with informed caution.

7. Choose Something New

Prioritize learning something new. As you sit at home doing research and preparing to go abroad, begin to hone in on a few “somethings new.” Maybe there’s a thriving fan club for the TV show you’ve started watching (I hear the anual Western Ireland celebration of Father Ted is quite…something). Maybe it’s a local instrument or sport you’ve never heard of…or alternately one you’ve known about for ages but never had the chance to learn. Maybe you get really excited about an aspect of history and want to ask and learn all you can about one thing.

Examples from my own study abroad/long-term travel:

  • Guatemala: Spanish, traditional backstrap weaving, gin rummy (played by all the backpackers), what it's like to look completely out of place, and a history of the recent civil war.
  • Chile: How to travel easily and well, how to dance all night, Spanish, and how to teach English. Also an enduring love for unprocessed honey.
  • Honduras: How to interview people, current and historical migration trends to the US,  and how to survive without any electronics.
  • Northern Ireland: Ceili dancing, a history of the Troubles, what it's like to look completely out of place (Part 2), and book binding.
  • Ireland: Taking part in writing groups, caring for goats and chickens, how to take down and rebuild stone walls, how to live in a capitol city, how to make a proper cup of tea, and how to behave backstage at concerts.

(I’m sure I’m forgetting a ton!)

There will be many new opportunities, experiences, and occasions to learn ahead of you. Pick a few out to jump-start your anticipation, and to begin to prepare for. 

If you liked this post, please check out "Education in the UK vs the US,"  "Learning a Language: My Journey in Spanish," "A Student Travel Mentality," and "Sentimental 'Must Pack' Items for Studying Abroad."