Recently, I went on a short, university lead, study away trip to Austria. I went with a close friend of mine, and if it weren't for him joining me on this trip, I believe I wouldn't have had as much fun as I did.
Although our professors found us some great tours and museums to explore and listen to, it sucks sticking out as much as you do when you're in a plainly obvious tourist group.
Some of my fondest memories from this trip are from the times where we could do what we wanted--with telling our supervisors where we were headed off course. Here are some tips on getting the most out of a short-term study away trip.
1. Break Away From Your Group
It felt like the majority of our group was scared to break away from our professors leading the group, and seldom joined us on our nighttime excursions.
Yes, you're in a country that you've never been to before and you don't speak the language, but if all you do is stick with your gigantic tour groups and head back to the hotel and go to bed at 10 pm, you're not going to experience the culture--you're only going to see and watch instead of feeling and doing.
It's the 21st century, you probably have a smart phone with a maps app, and you probably have your professor's contact in case you do get lost or in trouble.
If there is something you want to do, speak up and say it, someone will almost always want to join. You have to break away from your group and do activities or else all you're going to do is take pictures and say you saw the Belvedere Palace.
2. Eat Out of Your Comfort Zone
Yes, the food is different than what you're used to. Try it. The cuisine is a big part of any culture, and if all you eat is the equivalent to a chicken patty the entire time you're there, you're missing out.
Some of the best food I've ever had came from butchering a name on the menu, not knowing what I ordered. You might never get the chance to eat it again, so go for it. If you hate it, then that's all apart of the experience.
3. Find Your Typical Activities Abroad
Something my friend and I wanted to do off the bat was to find an Austrian hookah lounge. We knew it'd be an easy way to immerse ourselves in with the locals without putting us in an uncomfortable position. It was something we were familiar with, but oh so different.
If you frequent sports bars, find one abroad; if you go to the farmer's market on the weekend, find the local one; if you're a crafty person, find a craft store and buy craft supplies you wouldn't be able to find back home.
For me, I stopped feeling uncomfortable and alienated once I stumbled across a gay pride festival; I finally started to feel not as a tourist, but as a visitor. Being in a familiar situation will ease you into the culture without giving too much of a culture shock.