4 tips for making the most of your study-abroad experience

View of Paris from a boat ride down the Seine

Story and photos by Bella Barilati

My desire to study abroad was so strong, I built my college experience around making that happen — right down to my university choice.

The University of Oregon offers several Global Education Oregon (GEO) study-abroad options, and the School of Journalism and Communication has some great ones to choose from. I consider myself lucky to have been accepted into the Journalism in London program for the summer heading into my junior year.

The months prior to “hopping the pond” were a whirlwind. Between mandatory doctor visits and getting my passport renewed, I made a to-do list of all the places I wanted to see and things I wanted to do. I Googled anything and everything you could imagine about London and Europe­. I even watched the episode of “Friends” where Joey and Chandler ride the double-decker bus through London!

The day arrived. I said goodbye to my family as they dropped me off at the airport, prayed my luggage wouldn’t be over 50 pounds when I put it on the scale and headed through security.

That was just the beginning of my adventure. I learned so much from the entire experience —  about journalism, traveling and myself.

Here are four insights I took away from my time in the Journalism in London study-abroad program: 

Track Stadium
Students attend the Special Olympics, where they tour the venue and watch competitions.

1. Traveling alone across the world isn't as petrifying as you'd think

I never considered the fact that I would be completely alone in my travels to an unfamiliar country until it was happening. But I had only one moment of weakness that lasted about five minutes in the airport awaiting my flight to London, and I never felt more out of place than I did then. Experienced travelers flew past me with briefcases in hand as I nervously stood staring up at the departures screen, trying to find my gate. I thought I would never make my flight, but I did.

Once you get over that first five minutes of fear, it's a breeze.

2. You can do so much with journalism.

Before studying abroad, I always thought people with great jobs either had connections with higher-ups or were the cream of the academic crop. My time in London taught me it is possible to work your way to your ideal career through your own experience and merit.

One of the guest speakers for a class was a woman from BuzzFeed. She was hardly older than me and highly successful. Her story inspired me to follow my dream of finding a good job that I love. She told us how every day is a new adventure for her, and she never quite knows what the next project held in store. This resonated with me because I hope to be in that same position after graduation.

Inside BBC headquarters
Students go on journalism-related excursions, including one to BBC headquarters, where they find out what happens behind the scenes.

That was just one taste of the knowledge of journalism and life I absorbed through the program. While sitting in the classroom and traveling around Europe on excursions, I learned something new each day. Several assignments encouraged me to improve on my journalistic skills in a new way I had not thought of before.

For one assignment, we attended a cricket game—which I knew absolutely nothing about—and wrote about our experience. I admit, at first I thought the assignment would be a piece of cake. But when I sat down at that picnic table in Hyde Park, I was at a loss for words. I felt as if I were a real reporter, but I couldn’t put my thoughts on the paper. Ever since that day I have strived to improve my writing about personal experiences.

Each of the classes generally centered around a particular topic. Although I struggled at the time, I now appreciate how the program challenged me, because it took me out of my comfort zone and gave me practice in the skills I will need in my career.

3. Talk to everyone.

Like most kids, growing up I was taught to never talk to strangers. But in London, I found out this advice should not apply to adult travelers. I learned more through my conversations with people I had just met than I could from any amount of online research. The businessman I bumped into at the BBC headquarters who told me about his job, the woman in line behind me heading into the Special Olympics — everyone had a story to tell, and no two stories were the same. I learned so much from them all.

An oft-repeated mantra in public relations I have taken to heart is: "If you aren't good with people, you won't be good with PR.” I firmly believe in talking to many different people because they all have their own interesting stories and perspectives, and you can always benefit from seeing the world through the eyes of another.

Big Ben Clock in London
Students in the GEO Journalism in London study-abroad program spend the first night of the trip exploring the London Bridge and Big Ben.

4. Don't be afraid to be a tourist.

Growing up in Santa Cruz, California — a touristy town — I always dreaded going to popular places because of the flocks of tourists. I told myself before leaving for London that I would not be that annoying tourist. But the first thing I did when I got there was to ride the double-decker bus — thanks, Joey and Chandler! After that, I just gave in to my sightseeing whims and fully embraced my tourist side.

Yes, you will be shoved into crowds and lose track of your friends while trying to get the perfect picture of Big Ben. You will be persuaded to buy the overpriced boat ride through Paris. You will wait in line for as long as it takes to ride the London Eye — the massive Ferris wheel overlooking the city — even though you’re only on the ride for 10 minutes. But it’s all worth it.

If you are lucky enough to experience studying abroad, I recommend that you embrace being a tourist to the fullest while experiencing the local culture as much as you can.

My trip to London brought me nothing but happiness and a wider perspective and appreciation for the world we inhabit and the people in it. I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity the SOJC gave me, and I hope any who are considering studying abroad can make it happen. You will never regret expanding your horizons.

Bella Barilati is a fourth-year undergraduate student in the UO School of Journalism and Communication. She is majoring in public relations and minoring in nonprofit work. This is her second term pursuing her passion for creativity as senior events intern for the SOJC Communication Office.