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Pack Half-Full | From a Student's Perspective

How to pack your bags (and yourself) before you study abroad

Steve Hanna, University of Idaho

“Six shirts for six months abroad, do you think that’s too much?” I asked Curtis as he helped me pack the night before I left. He’d come down to say goodbye, throw the football, the usual stuff.

“You might want a little bit more than that,” he probably said. I wasn’t really listening, to be honest, because the bag looked pretty full. We were nearing the half-way point.

“Seven,” I said, adding the final shirt. There were seven shirts, slacks but no dress shoes, camera but no power volt adapter, a 500-page guidebook but no pocket maps.

Yep, I think we’re good.

When I set my dad’s 1970-era mountain backpack on the scale at the airport, they looked at me like something was wrong. It wasn’t even close to the free, fifty-pound limit. I looked at the line behind me. Business men had seventy-pound rollers for a weekend trip; people on cell phones had duffle bags as big as my backpack that was supposed to last six months. Had I made a mistake?

When I arrived in the Madrid airport, I met a guy who turned out to be studying abroad on the same program as me. We were standing in line at the conveyor belt picking up our bags. I helped him grab one of his three checked bags off the belt. “Careful with that one, it’s got the textbooks,” became: “Can you help me with my luggage?” I took one of his two heavy rollers and we began making our way through the Madrid metro system. There were no elevators, and there were no escalators. I’m glad I was able to help, and it definitely taught a valuable lesson about packing.

Most people say that you should pack light, but that doesn’t go far enough. Bring only one bag, and bring it half-full.

Half-full: not only should your pack be half-full, but you should be half-full as you come to another country to “fill up.” Half-full means that by going to another country, you will inevitably fill up as you learn about yourself, your new friends, their culture, and your home back in the US.

You’re going abroad to learn as much as you can—to fill up your pack, if you will—and to return with much more than you had before.

A half-full student is a wise student because they are a student who comes to learn, not expecting what they already have at home. A half-full student is someone who comes to another country to experience that culture for what it is, not for what it lacks. You’re not going to Asia or Africa or Europe to experience the same life you have at home, with washing and drying machines, fast food, cell phones, and picket fences, right? You’re going abroad to learn as much as you can—to fill up your pack, if you will—and to return with much more than you had before.

So what do you fill your pack with? And consequently, what do you fill yourself up with when you get there?

Packing Your Bag Half-Full

You’ve only got about one square foot of physical space if you want your bag to be half-full. It’s just like a good relationship: you get what you tolerate, so what do you need the most, and what can you do without?

For example, here is what I packed:

  • 7 t-shirts. To pack them light, lay them flat and fold them in half, then roll them up with a rubber band. Not only will they be wrinkle-free, but they’ll also take up one fourth of the space that they normally would. Also, bring t-shirts that you don’t mind losing. I didn’t bring any shirts with designs or fancy stuff because you should come prepared to lose everything. Ten people in my program group of 70 students either lost their luggage or it was delayed for at least several days.
  • 10 underwear and socks. Pack in the nooks and crannies around fragile objects.
  • 2 pairs shorts. Roll them like the shirts.
  • 2 pairs jeans. Roll them up, and since most countries don’t have washing machines, plan on wearing one pair for one week while the other one hangs to dry, and then wear the fresh pair while the other one dries.
  • 2 nice shirts/blouses. You can still look nice when going out.
  • 1 pair slacks. This is one of the best things you can bring and I highly recommend them. I wore mine to church, to the theatre (you need nice clothes to get in), the jazz club (they turned down clientele not dressed nice enough), a wedding, and special family/cultural events. A set of slacks opens many doors in other countries, many of which (especially Europe) tend to dress a lot nicer than we do in the US. Just roll them up and they won’t take up too much space.
  • Swimsuit. Bring an old one that you can leave behind or give away before you return. I made the mistake of bringing my nice one, and that ate space that could have been better spent on gifts for people back home.
  • Reading material for the plane. Don’t bring a book you really like. I made the mistake of bringing a book I’d borrowed from my brother and had to haul it all the way back home to give it back to him. That’s eight inches of space I could have saved had I brought something that I could give away when I landed.
  • Computer (put this in your carry-on). Let’s face it, you’re probably going to want this, and if nothing else, you can bring it to Skype your family back home and to save money on buying phone cards (transfer all of your important files and pictures to a separate hard drive back home in case your computer breaks down).
  • Digital camera and charger. Carry these with you because you can’t afford to lose them.
  • Money belt and copies of ID/passport/bank accounts. Carry these with you and whenever you travel out of your town, always wear the money belt and carry your passport (or a copy) with you.
  • Sports equipment, or American cultural items that you can share with people abroad. The best thing I brought with me was an American football, and since they don’t really play it in Spain, I used it to teach my Spanish friends how to play American football in exchange for them to teach me fútbol (soccer). Items like this are great because you are on an exchange program, and in order to share and exchange our culture, it helps to bring things that you can share. Other items could be anything that you can do with a group of other people, and games make great gifts because you can give them away.
  • A picture of your home and family to give to your host family or as a personal reminder. My host family has three photo albums full of pictures of past host students, and they host kids because they love making a difference in the lives of students. Bring a nice picture of your home and family for them and they will treasure it. My host family put my family picture on their kitchen counter so that they could look at it every day and be reminded of my family and whose son they were taking care of.

That’s only 13 different items to bring. You’ll notice that there aren’t iPods and cell phones and other gadgets on this list, and that’s because something like an iPod takes you out of the world that you’re in and puts you in your own world. You’re abroad to be in a foreign world, so it’s a good idea to put yourself there as much as possible, even though it might be hard to go without some things you are used to. On the positive side, if you have your computer, you will have your music with you and can listen to it there.

Using this list, your pack should be half-full and you will be a lot more mobile when you arrive. The hiking backpack will also come in handy when you go on longer trips, and for me it opened the door to do a week-long backpacking trip through the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain, and another hiking trip through Cirque Terre in Italy. Mobility is worth more than most material things that you could bring with you.

If you pack half-full, you will be one of very few students. Most students expect or try to bring the same nice things they have at home, but the half-full student knows that the only way to return full is to bring things that you don’t mind throwing away and to leave extra space inside to put new things. You will throw off old habits and mindsets, discover new talents and interests, and meet unforgettable people, but you will need room to put it all, both inside yourself and inside your bag.

Packing Yourself Half-Full

Part of preparing yourself for studying abroad is to expect that you won’t be living like an American; you don’t go to another culture to experience your own all over again. Go to learn about the people in a country, and if you’re interested in them and their language and culture, they will be interested in you. So how do you show interest in other people? The same way that you do at home: by making them feel important and valuable, by talking to them, interacting with them, saying hi and goodbye, learning their names and what they like and dislike, and doing things for them that make them happy. Here’s a little bit of what I think that looks like. Every day on my way to school I would get on the bus with the intention of talking to someone new in their language. One week I had a conversation with a woman from Ecuador, a fellow transplant to Spain, and even though we were from two different parts of the world, we could communicate through our shared language of Spanish. The same week I had a talk with a new student and, a day later, a talk with an elderly man on the way to his dentist appointment. Each of these conversations was just as interesting as the last, and each person equally engaging. I would get onto the bus and not know what to expect or who I would encounter. I only knew that (1) they were bound to be interesting, and (2) I was bound to learn something and grow in the process. What if this concept was applied to all of life? How much more apt would we be to chance, risk, even dare, to learn something new?

I hope that you will treasure the stories of the new people you meet abroad just like you do the people back home. I hope you develop the habit of reaching out and being interested in them, so that when you return home everything becomes more interesting.

That is what I hope you are able to take back home with you when you return from your study abroad—that by carrying a bag half-full you will have the joy of returning with a lifetime’s worth of memories made in just a few short months. I hope that you will treasure the stories of the new people you meet abroad just like you do the people back home. I hope you develop the habit of reaching out and being interested in them, so that when you return home everything becomes more interesting.

One of the wonders and goals of studying abroad and seeing more of the world is the opportunity to cultivate an interest in the world—wherever you happen to be in the world at a given time. So when you return home, do so with a full bag and a full heart, knowing that you reached out and made friends in another country, learned their geography, their art and cinema, their food and how they cook it, and what types of trees grow there. And when you get home you can then be just as interested in learning the names of all the trees in your backyard, and the names of your neighbors, and the stories of the people you ride the bus with. Studying abroad should expand your world—so that in the process of becoming interested in another country, you become interested in your own—and that is what will make you more engaged, more caring, and more receptive to the concerns and needs of people all over the world.

Studying abroad should expand your world—so that in the process of becoming interested in another country, you become interested in your own—and that is what will make you more engaged, more caring, and more receptive to the concerns and needs of people all over the world.

Maybe that’s a bit idealistic, but like a stone thrown in a pond, it has an expansive rippling effect. I’m still unpacking my bags. Some things that you put in your bag stay with you awhile; others stay with you forever. My shelf at home is filled with new things from that time to share with family and friends and my old backpack now sits in the garage collecting dust. It’s torn in places and a little patched up but it’s still half-full of unexpected treasures that won’t ever be completely unpacked, treasures that, like good family and friends, are hard—impossible even—to ever let go of.

About Steve

Steve studies English and Spanish at the University of Idaho, where he writes for the University, serves as a USAC Ambassador, plays drums in the jazz band, and has been to every home football game. He is working his way through school and will graduate in May 2011.

Steve grew up on a ranch in rural Baker City, Oregon—a town of 10,000 people and 100,000 cows—and it is out of that context that he studied with USAC in Spain. “It was an entirely new cultural animal for me and a wonderful opportunity to see a new world and a new way of looking at things.”

USAC: Why did you choose to study abroad?

SH: I originally chose to study abroad because I wanted a different sort of semester. I didn’t want to keep doing the same thing every semester at my home university and I wanted to take a step out of the ordinary into the extraordinary. Before I went to Spain, I thought this meant I would have a semester of vacation, travel, and relaxation. There does happen to be a beautiful beach in Alicante that I enjoyed, but I realized once I got to Spain that that’s not really why I was there. I may have thought I was learning Spanish to vacation abroad, but I learned that I was studying abroad to learn Spanish. Note the word study. That’s probably one of the hardest things to do abroad, but it is ultimately the most lasting and rewarding.

The thrills of adventuring through Morocco on camelback or hiking through the snows of Germany are long gone and the one thing that remains are the relationships I’ve built and the Spanish I’ve been working on. Studying abroad doesn’t necessarily mean book studying; it means engaging and jumping wholeheartedly into another culture and another language. That’s not always easy—at times, it’s downright frustrating—and I definitely wasn’t comfortable all the time. I think that’s a good thing. Studying abroad and expanding your world is not supposed to be comfortable. It’s supposed to hurt just a little bit, because only through stretching can we learn just how far we can go.

USAC: Why did you choose Alicante?

SH: This is pretty basic: the weather, the beach, the sun, and the fact that Spanish is the language here. Like my decision to study abroad, I first thought Alicante was the perfect vacation place… nice weather, palm trees, everything my (wonderful) home university is not during the winter months! But again, it hit me as soon as I got there that I would be wasting this great opportunity if I was just there to relax.

Looking back, I’m very glad I chose Alicante because it was a totally new experience and lifestyle. I had never lived in an apartment before or used public transportation on a daily basis. Going from my hometown—with 10,000 people and 100,000 cows—to a city of 350,000 and pretty much zero cows was quite an adjustment! But that’s exactly what was so great about being there. I was in another country, so I wasn’t planning on living the same way. It was a great opportunity to explore a different lifestyle and “fill up” with what daily life in a city can be like. I’d say that I’ve become more confident in my ability to handle tough situations. I’ve become more interested in the world, more interested in people, and more engaged in the relationships that life is built upon. I think those are some pretty exciting changes, and I’m very blessed to have had the opportunity to study abroad.

USAC: How has studying abroad changed you?

SH: You’ll have to ask my friends and family about this one! If I’ve noticed anything, it’s that I’ve become interested in the world. In another country, it’s easy to be interested in everything—the history, the people, the language—because you’re there for a limited amount of time. What’s harder, I think, is to take that same level of enthusiasm and bring it back to your own home. I think this is the goal of traveling and studying abroad.

It’s definitely a process, and like all processes it takes time and active engagement. I won’t scrape over the fact that there are challenges abroad—they definitely are there and you are forced to confront them. Even in the midst of negative experiences, they are opportunities for growth. That’s exactly what I think studying abroad, in the most ideal sense, should do. It should challenge you, frustrate you, and get you out of your comfort zone while also creating opportunities to see more of the world.

I miss a lot about Spain. I miss my host family, I miss the Spanish lifestyle, and I miss the wonderful people. I never thought I would be at that point. So I guess if I had to give specific ways I changed, I’d say that I’ve become more confident in my ability to handle tough situations. I’ve become more interested in the world, more interested in people, and more engaged in the relationships that life is built upon. I think those are some pretty exciting changes, and I’m very blessed to have had the opportunity to study abroad.

USAC: What is the most important thing about studying abroad?

SH: I think it’s your mindset. Everyone that studies abroad has challenges and incredible adventures, no matter where they go or what they do. The question is what you ultimately do with them. For me, having a “half-full” mindset has been a defining part of studying abroad. It’s the idea that we’re never complete, always changing and growing, and always remaining humble to the fact that we don’t have all the answers or know exactly what is coming next. It’s the ideal mindset of the study abroad students that I like spending time with, and the ideal of how the process and experience can change your life.