Learning How to Learn: Tips on Balancing Your Time Abroad

Written by Stephanie Jamilla (George Washington University) Student Correspondent CET Vietnam, Fall 2017

Back at the George Washington University, my friends often joke about how the library is my second home. Admittedly, I am a pretty serious student, and well, am a serious person in general. Don’t get me wrong, I know how to have fun and hang out, but ultimately school does come first for me. Hence, I was a bit worried about juggling conventional, structured in-class learning and experiential, independent learning outside of lecture. Now after being in Vietnam for around one and a half months, I can confirm that the classic study abroad cliche of how you sometimes learn more outside the classroom than inside is true. However, these two types of learning aren’t exclusive, and it’s definitely possible to do them simultaneously. Quite frankly it’s a matter of being creative and finding the best ways to immerse yourself in the new city and culture you’ve chosen. Here are some tips on how you can do it too.

  1. Late night essay writing at a local coffee shop

    Late night essay writing at a local coffee shop

    Study outside of campus and in a variety of places. A good way to explore the city is to pick a new place to do your academic work each time you head out to study. Not only is it a good way to prevent yourself from staying cooped up in the same, familiar place, but it’s interesting to observe the differences between the various sites you visit. You end up learning a lot about the ways of life and the culture too. For example, coffee shops are extremely popular in Saigon, and you can bet that every street and every alleyway has some cafe where you can order the quintessential cà phê sữa đá (aka Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk). Not only do I frequent these shops to write essays but to people watch. What are the demographics and how do they change as the day goes on? How does this place market itself as special in order to persuade customers to buy drinks here instead of the other 10 cafes on this street? All the coffee shops in Saigon stay open very late, especially in comparison to those in the US, so why and how did this phenomena come about? Working in a new environment you find pleasant makes doing the work more enjoyable and allows you to better experience and observe the culture around you. (As I write this now, I’m on a traveling seminar in Hanoi, typing on a bench by Hoàn Kiếm Lake. Each weekend the government closes the surrounding street to vehicles and becomes flooded with pedestrians. Tourists and locals mix together to create the overall lively atmosphere.)

  2. Be creative with your assignments. I’ve been lucky that a lot of my essays have been broad. This has allowed me to write about topics and issues that I’m genuinely interested in. In my Development and Environment class, our professor tasked us with writing an ethnography of an urban space. As a big proponent and fan of urban green spaces, I eagerly took the opportunity to hang out in parks and write about what I observe. Look at your work as opportunities to fulfill your curiosities and venture outside the classroom. This makes your work more meaningful and (gasp) maybe you’ll even enjoy it.
  3. Take time to talk with locals. One night my Saigon-local roommate Linh and I grabbed a late 9pm dinner at a Vietnamese hot dog street stall that she often frequents with friends. The place was absolutely packed with students and families alike, all seated on short plastic stools, which doubled as tables to place your iced peach tea and plate of hot dogs. Linh and I grabbed the first empty spot we could see, and after ordering we conducted the usual small talk of “how was your day” or “look at how many people are here!” But as the night wore on, our
    Studying outside

    Studying outside to enjoy the weather

    conversation topics became deeper and deeper. We talked about our hectic academic careers, cultural differences, goals in life, worries for the future, and much more. At one point we fervently discussed politics, which I was previously hesitant to bring up. But that conversation ended up being the inspiration for an assignment for my Public Health class. I really, highly, strongly suggest that you engage with locals and ask questions. I’ve found that people are usually willing to share and when they do, their input is rather insightful.

  4. But also remember to have fun! Give yourself a break and do activities completely separate from your work. Of course, remember to stay on top of classes, but also let yourself indulge. You’re only going to be here for a short amount of time, so take advantage of your stay. Say yes to events and to family dinners and to concerts and to weekend trips and to your roommate when she asks last minute if you want to attend an overnight Buddhist festival at her pagoda some hours away from the city. Basically anything that seems like a good time.

Take these tips as you will, but I can assure you that they’ve done me well so far. I hope everyone else who’s abroad is doing well!