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Sep 7, 2016 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

There’s no better way to truly immerse yourself in a new culture than to spend time in the company of locals. Unfortunately, many international students fall into the trap of socializing entirely with other international students. And while these relationships have upsides of their own, there’s no substitute for native friends when it comes to truly experiencing life in another country. Let’s count down six ways to befriend locals -- and enjoy the many benefits of doing so -- while you’re traveling abroad.

1. Embrace Their Interests

Regardless of where you’re from, the majority of friendships share one basic theme: They’re fortified by common interests. While the locals may be aware of aspects of your home country and culture, familiarizing yourself with everything from the local sports teams to hit television shows in your destination country can give you plenty of things to converse on and connect over.

 

2. Join a Club

A natural extension of embracing local interests? Getting involved with local organizations. Whether you sign up for an intramural sport; join a chorus or band; or take a painting or yoga class, participating in group activities can help you identify and bond with like-minded people. After all, clubs are inherently social. The more involved you get, the more likely you are to find acquaintances turning into friends. Not sure which clubs are offered? Check in with your campus association.

 

3. Put Yourself Out There

A recent survey about friendships between American and international students reveals some invaluable insights into how these two groups feel about each other. American students indicated that they felt they didn’t make enough of an effort to get to know the international students on their campuses. International students, meanwhile, indicated that they felt more comfortable interacting with other international students.

But perhaps most noteworthy of all? Both American and international students alike shared the common belief that the other group was not doing enough to bridge the gap. Your takeaway? Making the effort can mean all the difference. While taking that first step can be difficult, you’ll be grateful you did so.

Luckily, many schools make it easy to mingle with both international and native students alike. Maximize opportunities to make new friends by attending the outings and events sponsored by your host university.


4. Look Beyond the University

College campuses are a great place to make connections, but they can also be insulated from the outside world. Venture off campus and you’re likely to find an entirely different dynamic in the town or city where your host university is located. Getting a part-time job if your visa permits you to work can vastly extend your social circle, as can getting involved with a volunteer organization.

 

5. Accept Invitations

Just as it’s important to reach out to others, so is it equally important to respond when others reach out to you. Depending on your personality type, saying “yes” to everything from trips to the beach to coffee with a classmate may sometimes feel overwhelming, but the best way to get over the awkwardness of a fledgling friendship is to invest in getting through the small talk and finding meaningful connections.


6. Learn the Language

One of the best ways to make local friends? Speak the local language. You don’t have to be fluent. In fact, locals are likely to appreciate any amount of effort you put into it. Even if you’ve chosen a destination where English is widely spoken, taking the time to learn the language can help you forge deeper connections. Another amazing benefit of speaking the local language? The more you practice, the better you’ll get at it.


While the majority of international students are pleased with their study abroad experiences, those who are familiar with the local language and culture are most likely to find fulfillment, according to a report based on data from the International Student Barometer. The best way to achieve the truly immersive experience which best supports satisfaction? Building a vibrant network of local friends in addition to your international classmates.

One last thing to keep in mind when pondering how and why to make friends with the locals? In addition to standing to gain, you also have plenty to offer. From offering locals the chance to work on their own language skills in your native tongue to enriching conversations with your externally informed perspective, others are looking to benefit from your friendships in the same way that you’re looking to benefit from theirs.

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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