Students go abroad for a variety of reasons. It’s important to know what you want before you go abroad, to make sure that you walk away with your mission accomplished. One reason for study abroad is academics: specific subjects might not be available back home, like Islamic Banking, Politics of the Arab States, or upper-division foreign-language classes. Another reason is to take super easy classes for a semester and have fun in a foreign country. Others just want to fulfill study abroad requirements.
It’s important to find people you like and click with, and stepping out of your comfort zone can help this happen. But, you might have to reevaluate your study abroad goals based on the people you meet. I went abroad expecting all of my friends to be Emirati, with my goal being learning about Emirati culture. I’m good friends with one Emirati, but Emiratis are only 20% of the university population, so the rest of my friends are from all over the place; plus, I’m a junior and all of my friends are freshmen. But the important part is I’m having a worthwhile experience because I’m around people I enjoy spending time with.
Some exchange students are in the UAE for academics, so of course they sacrifice a social life for an education not available back home. Other students are here for the fun aspect, and living it up with other exchange students. One girl is actually preparing for a career in competitive sports, so she spends most of her time in the gym. I was surprised that not many exchange students integrate into the university community, especially since every piece of study abroad advice is somehow related to making local friends.
The easiest group to make friends with is the other exchange students. But, for those feeling more adventurous, here are some tips for making local friends.
- Find out how people keep in touch. People in the Middle East love WhatsApp (WhatsApp Website) and Blackberry Messenger (BBM Website). It’s not awkward to ask people for their number the first time you meet them.
- Try to spend as little time as possible in your dorm room. The longer you’re outside, the more people you meet.
- Exploit the first weeks of classes. This is when people are most willing to meet new people. Going up to a person sitting alone or to a group of two people in the food court is an easy environment to start a conversation.
- Think of anything to start talking about. If someone is playing music you like in the dorms, knock on their door. If they’re wearing a shirt you like, ask them where they got it. If they have dyed hair, ask them about their natural color.
- Talk to people you see multiple times a week, like classmates. If you hit it off, then it’s more likely a friendship will take root than with someone you click with but never see again.
- Find out what people do in between classes and try to do it as well. For example, students at my university sit in the Student Center and chit-chat.
- Don’t get insulted easily, and be forgiving. Remember you’re talking to someone from another culture, so something that’s rude back home might have no social baggage in the host country.