Ever wonder what it is REALLY like to spend time abroad during your college career? We sure did – so we tapped 2012 Vanderbilt University grad Raulin Hentchel for a first-hand account of his experience studying abroad in Japan. Don’t let the common “hurdles” keep you from seeing, and studying, the world!

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One of the most unique opportunities of a college education is a study abroad program. There are few experiences in life that are as enriching and eye-opening as walking in the shoes of someone a world away. I never considered the study abroad program in my undergraduate experience until I was well into my sophomore year at Vanderbilt. After finally declaring as an Asian Studies major and conferencing with my major advisor on avenues for what was (at the time) a very nondescript program, I began entertaining the idea that study abroad was right for me. I had been independently studying Japanese since middle school and taking formal classes in college. Once I realized I could so some real practicing in in the real place, the idea of study abroad began to catch fire in my mind.

This led me to my first real hurdle with study abroad programs: Scheduling. Though many academic programs around the world use the same model as the United States, there are places where the school year does not start in August. For Japan, my desired destination, the academic term begins in April. After much discussion with my major advisor and study abroad advisor, I determined the spring semester of junior year would be the perfect time. I took my normal fall semester and had summer break in winter and planned to fly out April 1 for the spring semester in Japan.

But my plan was interrupted by the second hurdle: The Unpredictable Nature of Life. The “Great East Japan Earthquake” that occurred in Touhoku, Japan in March 2011 was a shocking tragedy. Needless to say, the interruption of my study abroad program was likely the least amount of damage dealt, but I still felt it. I did not have a back-up plan and it looked like my perfect semester had transformed into a late graduation date for me. After an emergency meeting with my study abroad advisor, the dean of my college and the dean of the study abroad program, we developed a solution; a one-month summer program in July. It may not seem like much, but to me it was one month of paradise.

What hurdles did I expect to encounter in paradise? The third hurdle is Food. You have to eat no matter where you are. You may like the food of where you plan to go, but remember that you have to eat it every day while you are there. My plan was to train my body prior to the trip. Change your diet slowly and it will make the transition easier.

The fourth hurdle is Weather and Climate. Make sure you know where you are going and what the weather is like that time of year. If the humidity is going to be 90% all day every day (a la Tokyo), then plan for that. Bring jackets or raincoats if it happens to be the rainy season. Pack shorts and a hat for summer. It is like any vacation, you will just be there longer.

The fifth and maybe most important hurdle is Culture. Even if you have studied a culture as your major, culture shock is still a factor. Remember, when you are abroad, you are on their turf, not yours. Chances are, whatever culture you are entering probably interprets gestures, body language and information in general a little differently. Be sensitive to this and embrace it. Find out if there are any cultural holidays or local festivals occurring during your abroad program and find out the appropriate way to enjoy them. You will be so glad you did.

When you are planning your trip, keep these common hurdles in mind. Make sure that scheduling your trip is not going to do more harm to the pursuit of your degree than good. Make sure that you have a back-up plan in case things go wrong. Prepare your body for the new experience it is about to encounter. Prepare a wardrobe that fits where you are going and prepare your mind to experience something that could be just a wonderful learning experience, or more likely, a life-changing event.

— Raulin Hentchel