Prepare for study abroad to make it a smart, successful experience

Tips for a great semester away? Take clothes you can donate when you leave, wear a money belt and leave cultural baggage behind.

For most college students, a commute to class means rolling out of bed and walking across the campus green. But for the more than 20,000 U.S. students who will study in countries other than their own this year, their trek to class involves travelling clear across the world.

book“Studying abroad is truly transformative,” says Josh Carter, director of the Office for Study Away for the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “It throws students outside of their comfort zone to reflect and bolster what they learned in their comfort zone.”

About 240 UAB students will head off to places like Antarctica, Costa Rica and China this year, all in hopes of learning about different cultures, languages, religions and more. For many students, at UAB and elsewhere, this will be their first international trip, so Carter offers some tips for a successful journey.

Passports, pickpockets and personal data — oh my! “A person without a passport is a person without a country,” Carter says. Make a copy of yours and put it in a separate, safe place. You don’t want to be thousands of miles away from home without proof of where you’re from.

Get a money belt or shoulder pouch in which to keep your passport, credit cards, etc., Carter says. “Make sure it’s not visible and therefore not tempting to pickpockets.”

Bring a phone list of your banking and credit card institutions, he says. You never know if you’ll need to contact them while abroad. Leave a copy of the list at home with a trusted contact who can act on your behalf.

The world is huge; you can’t see it in two weeks. “Those who travel to Europe in the hopes of seeing Paris, London, Florence and Madrid all in one go make me laugh and cringe a little,” Carters says. “Most people don’t have the luxury of time to visit all those places in-depth.”

Before your trip, make a short list of things you absolutely want to see or do, he says. Also, check out discount websites like Living Social and Groupon, he says. They are a good source for international deals on museum passes, shopping discounts and car rentals.

Travel light. The lighter you pack, the easier you’ll be able to get around, Carter says. Bring comfortable walking shoes (not new ones) that can be slipped off and on for security checks, he says. And, don’t bother packing a different outfit for each day. A few T-shirts, a light sweater and a few pairs of trousers and/or skirts should be enough to get you through, Carter says.

“If you plan well, you should be able to travel for two weeks with just a carry-on suitcase,” he says.

You don’t have to take all your toiletries; other countries usually have most of the same ones, he says. He cautions African-American travelers to take their favorite hair care products as many countries may not sell them. “A bad hair day can ruin your trip as much as blisters can,” he says.

Carter suggests bringing clothes that are on their last leg and then donating them to a charitable organization before you return. “You’ll free up space for all those tchotchkes that you want to bring home, and you’ll have helped people out along the way,” he says.

Set your body clock. Carter has a trick he uses when he flies east to Europe. Pretend that it’s already 1 a.m. and sleep on the plane, he says. When you arrive, stay up as long as you possibly can – ideally until around 7 or 8 p.m. – and then go to bed. This will help set your biological clock to the local time zone.

“The worst you can do is to take a nap in the middle of the day when you arrive,” he says. “That’s when jet lag really sets in.”

Don’t forget to study. “Remember that it’s a different system of education overseas,” Carter says. “You need to attend classes every day.”

You may not have regularly-scheduled quizzes or midterms like back home, so keep good notes and review them every day. Often, the final exam is the only test given in academic settings, Carter says.

“Have fun,” he says, “but don’t let the distractions derail your main purpose for being on Study Away – to STUDY.”

Leave your personal and cultural baggage behind. “The best way to ruin a trip is to expect to find the comforts of home in your foreign destination,” he says. “After all, you’re traveling overseas because you want to get away from it all, right?”

Pick up a few of the country’s courtesy phrases. They can be found in guidebooks or free on iTunes. This will come in handy when interacting with service staff, etc., he says.

Lastly, remember that you are the tourist encroaching on the daily lives of those whose cities you’ll be visiting, he says. “Be respectful to them and they will respect you and be happier to share the treasures of their land with you,” Carter says. “You’re not in Kansas anymore — and that’s just where you want to be.”