I moved to the U.S. in 2008. I went to the public high school for two years and studied four years in college. I would have to say that I'm extremely lucky to be able to come to the U.S. with my family so I'm not alone. Although I wasn't an exchange student, there are still a lot of things I learned from studying in a different country. I want to share three things that I think are important to remember for you to have a wonderful experience when you're studying abroad.
The hardest thing for me when I was studying in the U.S. was speaking in English. From my experience learning English in Taiwan, we focus much more on reading/writing than speaking/listening. I was so afraid to talk to other people during the first few years in the U.S. I was worried that my grammar would be wrong when I talk, or the others wouldn't understand me because of my accent. When I took the public speaking class in the first semester of college, I got SO nervous before the presentation. I told my friend how stressed I felt, and she replied "Why would you think of it [speaking in English] that way? You should be proud that you're able to speak another language." And I thought, "Yeah, I should have more confidence in myself." Since then, I changed my attitude toward English speaking.
An important thing to keep in mind is that language is a tool for communication, so don't be afraid to use it because you think you'll make mistakes. The best way you can learn and improve when you're learning a new language is by practicing it. If you're afraid to speak to others like I did, find ways to practice. It can be as simple as chatting with your friends. The more you talk, the more comfortable you'll get. And remember, you already know more than you think, so be confident in whatever you do, whether is writing or speaking.
You come to another country to study, but you're also there to experience the different culture and lifestyle. Don't take everything for granted. Have questions and go find out the answers. Look up some interesting information about the area. What is the history of the town you're in? What restaurants are famous among the locals? If you like hiking or outdoor activities, find out the fun places you can explore nearby. If you like reading, maybe there are some awesome bookstores in town. You're given the once in a lifetime opportunity to live in a new place for a period of time, why not have some fun while you're there? Years later, when you think back of your time abroad, you don't want only the classrooms and tests in your memories. Go ahead and make your life abroad memorable. These experiences will be with you forever.
When you're in a place that's unfamiliar to you, it's so easy to be in the circle with people from the same background or speak the same language as you. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. I totally agree that sometimes you should stay in your comfort zone and relax for a little bit because being in another country by yourself is very hard. However, don't miss out the opportunities to get to know the people from different countries. Reach out to the ones who have the different culture; make friends with other international students. In addition, if you only hang out with people from the same country as you, chances are, you will talk to them in your native language. Then it might limit the opportunity for you to practice the new language. So be open-minded, and you will learn so much about the world.
If you are planning on studying abroad for a summer or a semester, I hope you really value your time while you're there. Schools and grades are important, so is your experience. And only you can create the best memories for yourselves.