Alcohol, Drugs, & Study Abroad—Without the Buzz Kill

by Published

This article was previously published in Add you viewing Tips & Tales: Sexual Harassment Abroad. Follow the link to read the original article and full Ebook. 

Your study abroad experience is meant to open you up to new things and broaden your horizons. It’s all being exposed to opportunities and experiences you otherwise wouldn’t be. The beauty of study abroad, and travel in general, exists in the challenge of finding your way in a new place while meeting new people, tasting new food, experiencing different cultural practices, learning new languages, and just having fun. 

The interior of a small pub in Madrid, Spain

You can learn a lot your host culture your barstool, but you can’t learn everything.

And yes, as a young 20-something going abroad (possibly for the first time!), that fun will most definitely include plenty of nights out at the pub or the club with friends, dancing, laughing, and having a great time. We’re not telling you you can’t go out drinking while studying abroad, but we are telling you to be responsible and smart, and to stay safe.

Study abroad programs sometimes , but we’re here to dispel the myths, give you the real talk on what to expect, and some strategies to ultimately stay safe. Here are some questions you should know the answer to before you go abroad and start hitting the bottle. That way you’ve got all your bases covered and are prepared to have a ton of fun while also staying safe and true to yourself.  

Questions to ask your university / program provider

We know you’re likely going to drink while you’re abroad and so does your university and program provider. When you study abroad, safety might not be top of your mind at all times, but your in-country program coordinator sure is thinking it! 

1. “ I allowed to drink or do drugs while studying abroad?”

There are some programs and universities that hard stop do not allow drug use or drinking while studying abroad (or while you’re back home on campus.). So, there’s a possibility it will not be allowed on your program, and if so, you gotta abide by their rules. Always check with your school and provider first.  

college boy getting sent home early from study abroad
We'd hate for you to get dismissed from your program / sent home early for losing control of your consumption.

However, other universities and program providers do not have explicit rules against drinking while studying abroad. You’re an adult and your in-country program coordinator is not your babysitter, so if you are of legal drinking age*, you need to drink responsibly. They’re number one priority is YOUR safety (it should be yours, too, but we know sometimes that Ouzo neat might take precedence). Respect their rules and regulations because it’s all in the name of making sure you have a safe and successful study abroad experience—and if you violate them, it *could* be grounds for program dismissal. And that’s just sad. And embarrassing. And expensive. (More on this later 👇).

Something a little less vague and more clear cut for many program providers and university is their drug policies. Much like back home, programs often take a zero tolerance approach to substance abuse. It might even have rules surrounding cigarette use and smoke breaks. 

*Some programs might not let you drink if you are under 21, even if your study abroad destination has more lax-age restrictions. As well, if you are under the legal drinking age in foreign countries you visit, you absolute CANNOT drink. Unless getting arrested and dealing with foreign punitive systems sounds fun to you?

2. “What happens if my drinking and partying goes too far?”

Aside from the obvious health and safety hazards—alcohol poisoning, being physically hurt in any sort of incident, losing your valuable/personal belongings, being targeted or having things stolen from you, etc., etc. You can get sent home. 

It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. If your behaviors pose a risk to yourself and other students abroad, you can (and let’s be honest—should) go home. Studying abroad is not a free pass from personal responsibility and it’s certainly not a beach vacation. You’re there to have fun and learn and grow in new ways, in a new environment and culture, and with new people. You’re not there to binge drink or spend your days high as a kite. 

women clinking wine glasses

Be sure you understand drinking etiquette in your host country when you study abroad.

And, if that is your primary motivation, you should ask yourself a few of these questions before going abroad… and seriously re-adjust your priorities. 

3. “How do you recommend I approach alcohol while abroad?”

Truth be told, there’s a lot that can be learned from a bar stool your study abroad destination. Alcohol has become embedded in many world cultures, sometimes for centuries. Who can make true Trappist Ales? What’s the Reinheitsgebot? Does cava actually have alcoholic properties? Why does Qingdao’s architecture look so German?

Many educators will encourage you to approach alcohol through a—you guessed it—educational lens. With this mindset, you’re bound to still have a ton of fun abroad without overdoing it. You might learn a thing or two your host country’s history, make friends with the local bartender and get some sweet insider tips, or engage in other activities that are reserved for night owls (like delicious 串儿 in China!). 

Questions to ask yourself

It is critical to examine your understanding of drinking etiquette and social norms in your host country, as well as personal boundaries in relation to drinking while studying abroad. If you are unsure what types of behaviors you are willing to engage in and what types of behaviors you are not willing to engage in, sit down, think them, and decide (without peer pressure) what you are and aren’t okay with. 

My behavior has always been guided by the belief that how I act demonstrates who I am. In other words, my actions communicate my respectful, proud, and confident personality. It is important to reflect on who you are and what you believe in because at the end of the day it is your mind, body, and spirit. Only you can decide what is best for you.

girl passed out from overdose while studying abroad
Substance abuse & study abroad is no laughing matter. 

1. What is drinking etiquette like in my host country? 

Shout out to American college students going abroad: those big parties you might be used to are not often the norm around the world. Drinking etiquette varies widely from country to country and culture to culture, but generally alcohol accompanies a meal or is a limited social activity, and isn’t consumed in mass quantities while getting crazy on the dancefloor. At least, not all the time. 

Look into the drinking culture in your host country and make a commitment to understand and abide by it. Studying abroad in France means you’ll be sipping wine with charcuterie at the corner cafe, not pounding shots and dancing on the bar. 

2. When I’m at home and decide to party, how much do I normally drink?

Another reminder because it bears repeating: Always, always, always follow the rules laid out by your institution, program provider, school, or employer. They’re there for a reason, and you wouldn’t want to cut your time abroad short because you did not follow these rules.

So, what if you decide to drink alcohol abroad? Cool! That’s your choice. Ask yourself “When I’m at home and decide to party, how much do I normally drink?” Use your personal baseline as a point of reference. If you do not drink heavily on a night out at home, how are you deciding whether this is something you are going to do abroad? Ensure you are making these decisions BEFORE you head out for the evening and stick to your decision! 

If you decide to engage in an activity that you have never done before (i.e. drinking or should you decide to use other controlled substances), remember our recommended plan. Think who you are going with, where you will be, how you will be getting around, and what will you be doing. If you are uncomfortable with any part of the plan SPEAK UP! Only do what you are comfortable with and do not let others decide for you.

Gif, Amy Schumer drinking a huge glass of white wine

Note: this is not a casual glass of wine.

3. How can I make sure I’m safe when I’m not sober?

Drinking while studying abroad is just as safe as drinking while at your university back home. Which is to say—You’re in charge of your personal safety when you choose to drink. Adding substances like alcohol into the mix always increases the possibility of trouble, but if you’re smart and responsible, you can have fun and not sacrifice a Saturday night out with some good friends and a couple of bevvies. 

It’s binge drinking that gets reeeeally dangerous—especially when you’re in a new place and still figuring out how to get around your host city—so you need to know your own limits and always have a solid plan in place for a night out. 

Pro tip: Limit yourself to one or two drinks when you go out and always have a designated walker/take turns with friend being the designated walker. This is the person who makes sure everyone stays safe while you’re out and gets home safely at the end of the night! 

4. What are my boundaries when I do decide to go out? 

We guarantee that traveling will test your limits and your judgement, especially when you’re in a new and exciting place, trying to make new friends, and have fun. It is easy to become carried away and act in ways that you would not normally when you are trying to fit in with others and you think it won’t really matter since nobody you know is around to judge (or mom-friend) you. 

Maintaining strict personal boundaries can be difficult, but also lessens the chance that you will find yourself in a hairy situation. This does not mean you cannot have an absolute blast and engage in new experiences, it simply means that you get the opportunity to find out what behaviors are a good fit for who you are.

It can be challenging to make a decision what a night out looks like for you. This is especially true when you’re feeling a little insecure or nervous life abroad. 

Traveling is an excellent way to boost your self-confidence, but a lack of self-confidence can also negatively impact your experience abroad if you are not acting in a way that is true to your values, beliefs, and morals.

lazy girl gif
You don't have to go out *every* time your pals are. Staying in RULES!

One last thing: Sex + alcohol + your safety abroad

What if you decide to engage in sex while you study abroad? That is also entirely your decision! Keep in mind that sexual practices, expressions of sexuality, and sexual expectations can be very different depending on where you are. Do not assume that whomever you decide to have sex with has the same idea of what consent, sex itself, or intimacy is because these might be very different to them.

Again, deciding what type of sexual activity you are comfortable engaging in BEFORE the situation arises is critical. The same decision making process you use to decide drinking and partying can apply to sexual practices too. And, not to sound like an after school special stuck in your VCR, but stay safe. 

If you decide to mix sex and alcohol, think what you can and should do to help keep you safe and comfortable. Keep in mind that consent becomes less feasible once you are in an altered state of mind. Do not assume everyone is well intentioned and has the same idea of what fun, intimacy, partying, and socialization means. Make sure to communicate your intentions, and—again— always speak up if you become uncomfortable. 

When you decide to go out with new people or explore new places and intend to use drugs or alcohol as well as engage in sexual activities, make sure to tell people you trust where you are going, what you will be doing, and who you will be with. 

Be smart, stay safe

Gif, Gatsby raising his glass with fireworks in the background

Cheers to having fun and—say it with me, now—*BEING SAFE*!

that a lot of students change their behavior drastically while they’re abroad and that’s not always for the better re: drinking. If you’re choosing to go out for a night on the town, you need to fully understand that your actions will (and always do) have consequences for better or worse. We’re not trying to scare you or say you can’t go out and have fun, we just want you to be safe

Personal boundaries allow you to enjoy yourself without compromising your safety. Each of us has a different idea of what fun, partying, letting loose, and celebration looks like. As a result, your definition of fun might look very different from even your closest friends. Figure out your limits ahead of time so that you can have a safe night out while also having a blast!

Learn More About Sexual Safety + Student Travel Abroad in This Ebook