This post is part of our Study Abroad Stories series, which aims to share the thoughts and experiences of students who have already taken the leap of faith and gone to study in a foreign country. With each of these stories, we hope to inspire, inform, and encourage anyone who has yet to study abroad. Want to share your story? Send us an email at [email protected] or tag us on Instagram using the hashtag #studyabroadstories.

Julie is a librarian by day, die-hard travel fanatic and writer by night where she serves as the author and creator of The Red Headed Traveler. When she’s not traveling, she’s either testing out a new recipe or being a foodie in Pittsburgh. If you’re interested in seeing where she travels to or what she makes next follow along on Facebook or Instagram.

  • Name: Julie Tulba
  • Country/place of origin: USA
  • Where you studied abroad: Seoul, South Korea, San José, Costa Rica, and Seville, Spain
  • When you studied abroad: Summer 2004 (South Korea), Spring 2005 (Costa Rica), Spring 2006 (Spain)
  • College/university that you studied abroad with: Seoul Women’s University, Institute for Central American Development Studies (Costa Rica), Center for Cross-Cultural Studies (Spain)
  • Describe your overall study abroad experience in 3 words: Lifetime of memories

Why did you decide to study abroad? Why did you go where you went?

Ever since I was in high school I had dreamt about studying abroad. I didn’t necessarily care where I just knew I wanted to. The idea that I could gain college credits while living in a foreign country, immersed in that culture and traveling on the weekends seemed incredible to me.

Well, I was a Spanish major so I knew that it would “behoove” me to go somewhere Spanish speaking even though I know a semester in Prague would have been equally amazing. My college while incredibly small did have a couple of affiliations with academic sites around the world and so that’s how I ended up studying in Spain and Costa Rica (those were the only two opportunities in Spanish-speaking countries). If you’re wondering how I ended up studying in South Korea, my college offered scholarships to study at Seoul Women’s University, specifically in the Bahrom International Program. I had to pay to get to South Korea but everything else was covered including three college credits. It was simply too incredible of an opportunity to pass up.

Briefly describe what a typical week looked like for you when studying abroad at each place. 

South Korea: In the mornings there were classes and then in the afternoons there were visits tied to cultural and historical topics. Classes ranged from Korean history to politics and even to an intensive crash course in the Korean language. The program included field trips throughout the country like the DMZ. Evenings and some weekends were free to do whatever we wanted (and also go where we wanted).

Costa Rica: My program in Costa Rica was a bit different in the sense that the first month of the semester was spent in an intensive academic regimen and then the next two months I spent at my internship site (everybody in the program chose where they did their internship at, locations were all throughout Costa Rica and also in neighboring Nicaragua). Morning classes were devoted solely to Spanish, and then afternoon classes ranged from economics to history to literature, all with a Costa Rican focus. During the first month, every weekend we traveled as a group to a different part of the country, all tied to the program’s focus of environmental studies and sustainable development. I really struggled the first month since I was at school for almost 12 hours each day paired with feeling like I was drowning from a language learning context (I was one of the youngest people in the program and also the least proficient) and a terrible host family situation to boot.

Spain: My schedule in Spain was very similar to a semester of college at home. I chose which classes I wanted to take and classes were held throughout the day, (i.e. I had a morning class but my roommate didn’t have her first class until 10AM, it just depended). I always went home for lunch, which was the main meal of the day in Spain. Classes were held Monday-Thursday which meant you could jet off to anywhere you wanted to for the weekend. In the beginning this was awesome but as the semester wore on I grew to love weekends spent “en casa” (at home) not doing much.

How did each experience differ? How were they similar?

Since my program in South Korea was only a month long, it definitely was not as academically intensive as my programs in Costa Rica and Spain. Costa Rica was unique in the sense that the majority of my semester there was spent doing an internship. Spain was the only program where I got to elect my courses, in South Korea and Costa Rica, I had no choice in the matter since classes were held in a group setting (i.e. everyone in the program was in that class). Spain was also the country where I made a conscious effort to truly speak Spanish as much as possible and I know my Spanish skills benefited immensely from this (by the end of the semester I was pretty fluent).

Did you prefer any one of them above the others? Why?

If I could only pick one, I’d choose Spain. It certainly wasn’t the most unique or exotic of my three experiences, and yet in many ways it was the most “stereotypical” one of the quintessential semester abroad-out all night, traveling to other European countries on the weekends, truly becoming fluent in another language. Spain was also the third study abroad experience I had done by then and I definitely think not being a newbie and having veteran experience helped my mental frame of mind a lot and allowed me to make the most of my time too.

What was the best/most useful thing you packed? What should you have left at home?

My camera. I’m so glad I studied abroad before smart phones were a thing because I know it wouldn’t have been the same type of experience with people vying to take selfies or posting on Snapchat. More than a decade later, I still love looking at the photos I took in all three countries.

A journal. In Spain I kept a journal and 95% of the entries were in Spanish. It was wonderful language practice and I recommend this for anyone who is moderately fluent and studying in a country where you don’t speak the native language.

Although I often over-pack I don’t think there was anything I brought that I didn’t end up needing. When you’re gone from home for months, over-packing isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Where was your favorite travel destination while studying abroad?

In South Korea – Gyeongju, it’s a city on the southeast coast of the Korean peninsula and was once the capital of a 1,000 year old dynasty and so there’s amazing history everywhere you look. The 8th-century Bulguksa Temple which features twin stone pagodas and a large bronze Buddha is probably my favorite site of everything I saw in Korea.

In Costa Rica – The region that is home to the volcano, Arenal. La Fortuna is a sleepy yet uber touristy town but it was so beautiful. It’s located in the central part of the country so everything around you is super green and picturesque. There are also numerous hot springs here. I got to visit two of them and the experience made me hooked.

In Spain – Is it lame if I say Seville? It’s just such a visually stunning city and so representative of the Spanish culture. I know I was quite lucky to call it home for four months.

What was your most embarrassing/craziest study abroad moment?

In South Korea – I wouldn’t really call it crazy but it was surreal being at the DMZ (the border between the two Koreas) and hearing how the people in civilian clothing on the other side, people who I could clearly see for they weren’t really that far away, were North Korean tourists, doing the same thing we were, looking over the border at the “other side,” imaginging what life was like there.

In Costa Rica  – One weekend, we traveled to Chira Island, a small and extremely underdeveloped island located in the Gulf of Nicoya. The “lodge” (cough: shack) we stayed at was home to mutant grasshoppers that literally took over the inside of the lodge (they were on the walls, the edges of the bed, on tables). I didn’t sleep at all that night and was up and outside at the crack of dawn. Ironically enough, I was the only person in my program bothered by the “unwanted visitors.”

In Spain – Witnessing Semana Santa (Holy Week). Seville is THE place to be for Holy Week celebrations and it’s truly an understatement when I say the crowds were insane.

What was the best thing you ate while studying abroad?

In South Korea – mandu (Korean style dumplings)

In Costa Rica – patacones (twice fried plantains)

In Spain – croquetas de jamón y queso (ham and cheese croquettes, my roommate and I would polish off more than a dozen of these in one sitting)

What did you miss most about home when studying abroad?

In South Korea – the food (I struggled a bit with the food when I was there but ironically I’ve grown to love Korean food…save for squid. I frequented the American fast food establishments in the expat neighborhood of Itaewon way too much.

In Costa Rica – My family. I think I had cultural shock more in Costa Rica than the other two countries I studied in due to the rigorousness of the first month of the semester and then being separated from the other students in my program since I was the only one who remained in San Jose for the internship period.  I was around people thanks to my host family and the people I worked with and yet it still felt isolating at times.

In Spain – Not too much except towards the end of the semester when Spain had daily temperatures in the high 90s/over 100 degrees F daily, I would have done anything for air-conditioning. My host family didn’t have air-conditioning in their home (as is the norm for most Spanish residences) so the days and especially evenings were painfully hot. It’s tough when you come from a culture where air-conditioning IS the norm.

What was the biggest challenge you faced while studying abroad?

In South Korea – The language. While I did end up teaching myself the Korean alphabet (known as Hangul), that didn’t mean I could really read any Korean or speak it beyond a few words and phrases. So asking for directions or eating at a restaurant was tough at times.

In Costa Rica – I had a horrific setup with my first host family. It got to be so bad that I ended up changing host families. I felt immense guilt thanks to my first host mom but knew it was for the best for me personally. Looking back, I only wish I had spoken up and asked to be changed sooner.

In Spain – I contracted food poisoning pretty early on into my semester there. It made for a miserable couple of weeks especially since some of the symptoms lingered. I finally ended up having to see a local doctor and after getting prescribed some medicine (something that looked and tasted akin to cod liver oil!), I started feeling better.

What was the most unexpected part of studying abroad?

In South Korea – Falling in love with a country and its culture that until going I knew next to nothing about. South Korea is very much glossed over when compared to China and Japan and yet its culture and history and even more importantly, its sights, are just as spectacular.

In Costa Rica – Learning how much of a wonderful thing it is when you step outside of your comfort zone. Costa Rica forced me to do many things I had never done before and I will be eternally grateful for it.

In Spain – Realizing how (relatively) easy it is to become fluent in another language when you actually make the conscious effort to truly speak it all the time.

What is your fondest memory from studying abroad?

In South Korea – Being in Asia, being immersed in a country and culture that was so unlike my own.

In Costa Rica – My (second) host family. My host parents Flora and Carlos are two of the sweetest people I have ever met in all my travels and to this day, I can still hear their voices in my head. Host families typically are only there to provide you with room board (as was the case with my Spanish one) and yet to me they acted like loving grandparents.

In Spain – Having my dad come and visit me. It was so cool to be able to show him around and truly get to act like a local (and serve as translator too) since I was one.

Is there anything you wish you would have known before studying abroad?

Can’t think of anything but then again I had been researching and dreaming about studying abroad since I was 14.

If you could go back and do it over again, is there anything that you would change?

In South Korea – I would have tried to have embraced the food more, been open to trying more things. I wish my culinary palate at 19 was as well-rounded as it is now.

In Costa Rica – I would have done my internship in Nicaragua. Culture wise, I think it would have been a much more meaningful experience. I also would have had less interaction with Americans and Canadians, which would have benefited my Spanish significantly. When you’re around people who speak your native language all the time, well, naturally that’s the language you’re going to speak in.

In Spain – I only visited Morocco for the day. I really wish I had the opportunity to be there for the week, traveling throughout the country like so many of my friends did. It’s a lot easier to travel to Morocco when it’s only an hour away by boat.

How have your study abroad experiences impacted your life?

I think about them every day in some capacity, my time in South Korea, Costa Rica, and Spain is always on my mind. It sounds trite but my experiences in those three amazing countries are some of the dearest memories in my heart, even with the hiccups I had along the way, I wouldn’t trade them for anything. I know as a result of having lived outside of the United States in three very different areas, I’m so much more of a globally conscious individual. Yes, American is my nationality but I feel I’m a citizen of the world.

Any last words of advice for people planning to study abroad? 

If you have the opportunity, stay with a host family. Yes, you may have less privacy than you would in a dorm or apartment and yet it’s one of the most meaningful and culturally rich experiences you could ever have.

People often think studying abroad is too expensive for them. Find out if your college has any affiliations with programs in other countries or even better, programs they administer themselves-the benefit of this is tuition and room and board are often the same as a semester at home. Apply to scholarships-take the time to do the research because there’s nothing else like studying abroad. Traveling is fun but studying in a foreign country, it’s the chance of a lifetime.

Have you studied abroad in South Korea, Spain, or Costa Rica? Or are you considering studying abroad in any of those places? Please feel free to share your thoughts or questions in the comments section below.