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12 Must-have Gifts for Students Studying Abroad

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With nearly 300,000 students studying abroad in 2012-2013, a new wave of students will depart on a much-anticipated adventure abroad right after the holidays in late December/early January. Two of my nieces will be among them - one a sophomore at Elon University, the other a freshman at Temple University. To help them choose their first study abroad program, I had already given them each a copy of my latest book, A Student Guide to Study Abroad, and I was inspired to go beyond the easy, even if always appreciated, gift of cash. So I complemented my own traveler's experiences with research that included soliciting insight and ideas from the recent study abroad veterans who contributed to my book. With the gift-giving season now in full swing, consider giving that special student in your life a present they will find invaluable during their time abroad. Whether going abroad for a month, a year or somewhere in between, there's something in the following list for every intrepid young traveler.

1. Passport holder: Keeping travel documents safe and organized is easy with a passport holder that has zippered pockets to separately stash various important items, such as a passport (or a copy), money, credit card and a key. Those with a strong lanyard to wear around the neck and tuck inside a shirt for safekeeping are the most practical for student travelers; a small messenger bag for women that can also serve as a purse works in a similar fashion. Brookstone, Lewis N. Clark and Voodoo Tactical are popular, ranging from $8 to $40 with many more brands found on Amazon.

2. Multi-day backpack: The ideal backpack is one small enough to carry on a plane but large enough to fit items for two or three days (and/or all the original departure carry-on items listed on page 138 of A Student Guide to Study Abroad). It should be waterproof, have multiple pockets inside and out, and come equipped with a waist strap for extra balance and security. REI, L.L. Bean and eBags have a good selection, ranging from $50 to $300.

3. Swiss Army Knife: The Swiss Army knife generally has a sharp blade, as well as various tools stowed inside the handle of the knife through a pivot point mechanism. The beauty is the size: most are just three to four inches long. Ranging from the $24 Classic to the $595 David Yurman piece, there are hundreds of choices. The Hiker or Mountaineer seem to be most popular and practical, but it must be stored in checked luggage when flying.

4. Universal power adapter: Digital cameras, mobile phones and laptops will need to be charged and most other countries have different-sized plugs. Any electronics or other devices rated for universal voltage of 100-240V AC can use adapters that work as a plug converter and are quite inexpensive (under $5). Universal power chargers are a bit more expensive ($15-50), bulkier and not really necessary unless students will be working extensively on their laptops.

5. Neck pillow and sleep mask: Sleep is essential yet can be difficult in a new environment, on long plane rides, and even train and bus rides. Neck pillows provide support and can be found in almost every airport these days, but Bucky brand has so many styles and colors, you're bound to find the perfect one for your student be it the $19.95 Minnie Compact with snap & go feature or the $34.95 U Pillow that can serve as a real pillow. Sleep masks block the light on planes, trains and buses, in hostels where many rooms don't have window shades, and in a shared dorm room where a fellow student might be burning the midnight oil. Dream Essentials offers choices from $2.95 to $39.95 in a wide variety of functionality and "personality," and Tempur-Pedic claims to be the "perfect sleep mask: offering total darkness and a comfortable fit."

6. Hanging toiletry bag: Shared showers and bathrooms are common on campuses here and abroad, and staying in hostels often necessitates keeping your toiletries all in one place. The nylon hanging toiletry bag with multiple pockets for maximum organization comes in many different sizes, with the hang strap fitting over most hooks and towel bars. L.L. Bean has a nice, albeit expensive ($24.95 - $39.95), assortment, as does Lewis N. Clark for $20. One extra gift to stuff inside is an REI Multitowel Lite, which measures 54" x 25", takes up to eight times its weight yet wrings out completely dry to fold up into a 5x5 square.

7. Traveler's scarf: No matter where in the world your student is headed, a multi-purpose scarf is a traveler's must-have. A Pashmina scarf can serve multiple functions for women: it turns a simple sundress or tank top and skirt into a respectable outfit and covers shoulders or heads when visiting mosques or temples. For both men and woman, an oversized scarf serves as a wrap for extra warmth, a pillow as needed, and protection against cold, wind, smog or pollution. Authentic Pashminas can be found at The Pashmina Store with options for men at Royal Bhaktapur, as well as most department stores, or any street market for knock-offs; fashionable scarves for men can be found at H&M or Guess.

8. All-purpose jacket: All-weather jackets should be durable yet small enough to be rolled up and stashed in a backpack for unpredictable weather changes. Although a bit pricey, Nau offers plenty of choices that are both practical and stylish, with many no thicker than a cotton shirt for easy packing.

9. Journal: All students should be encouraged to keep a journal when abroad to log all thoughts, impressions, emotions and hesitations. It shouldn't be too fancy, but more special than a plain school notebook. To add a heartfelt touch, include a few special photos and write a few sentiments on random pages to give your adventurers some warm memories to reflect on their experiences. A set of small notebooks can be given as a complement to keep in a purse or back pocket so as to be handy when out and about to take notes, jot down names of people met, write a special memory, or tag photos taken. Café Press, Papyrus, and Barnes & Noble offer a wide selection of both.

10. Books/Literature: Reading material is a necessity for any traveler, be it for pleasure or information while on the road. Consider one or all four of these ideas to ensure your student is prepped and ready for an international adventure.
  • Travel guides: A good country or city-specific guide to where the student is going; Lonely Planet is known for its first-hand approach, up-to-date maps and great budget-traveler tips.
  • Culture guides: Travelers do not just visit a country, they enter a culture; Xenophobe's Guides highlight the unique character and behavior of a nation in a humorous way, while the Culture Shock! series provides full explanations of social and business customs through practical examples and helpful "Dos and Don'ts".
  • Novels/Literature: Learning about culture, history, geography and language through literature is a wonderful way to explore a country; GoodReads offers its list of "Around the World in 80 Books" and writer Ann Morgan provides a list of 196 titles from her "A Year of Reading the World".
  • Online news subscriptions: Providing subscriptions to the Economist, Financial Times, The International New York Times or other global information sources will allow them to stay informed about what's going on in the world.
The best format for all of these would be either paperback or digital, the lighter the better. Travel guides, in particular though, are best taken as paperbacks. If your student doesn't have an eReader, perhaps it could be another gift, but keep in mind the need for power for use. In some places, they just aren't practical.

11. Camera or video camera: Although most students have smartphones with a camera or video capability for casual photos, a digital camera offers much better image quality. But don't just choose a point and click since most smartphones are of equal quality. Look into the equivalent of a 35mm Canon or Nokia for more advanced features, additional lenses and greater memory. Canon's EOS series starts at $449.99, and Nokia's SLR series begins at $499.95. For inexpensive video cameras, the Flip retails for $349.

12. Sentimental: Despite the excitement of studying abroad, your young traveler will miss the creature comforts of home, as well as friends and family. Rather than promising to Skype everyday (not a gift, but a distraction), give the gift of encouragement, coupled with some treasured items from home: A hand-written packet of letters, one to be opened each month he or she is abroad, filled with words of support; a small photo album of family and friends with a handwritten note or a family picture set in a light, unbreakable frame; or a small care package of favorite foods/candies/teas to be savored when a taste of home is what's most desired.

Happy gift-giving, and, if you have other ideas to share, please do!