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How to Overcome the Study Abroad Blues
Advice from a Student in Rome
Article and photos by Daniel King
|Preparation for travel in Italy.
Think of a major challenge you have recently overcome. How did you manage to pull it off? There are undoubtedly many factors that contributed to your success, but what is paramount is the fact that you are no stranger to overcoming obstacles. Now take a moment to visualize and digest the following hurdle: traveling distances from home in order to live with complete strangers in an unfamiliar part of the world. Crazy, right? The ambition motivating your decision to study abroad will test your sanity unfathomably. Your limits will be pushed in all the wrong places, but you will grow as an individual in all the right ways.
Now that the decision is concrete, it’s time to fully comprehend the journey that awaits you. Diving headfirst into a new culture can be exciting in many terrifying ways, and poses many questions. Here are a few that popped up in my untraveled mind:
- Where will I be living?
- What will I be eating?
- Do I need to learn the language?
- Is Netflix available?
No question about studying abroad is unreasonable; ask away, especially to those who have previously participated in a program. In many instances, it can be hard to get fully satisfactory answers to some questions, as the study abroad experience is unique to the individual and country. Regardless, what is pertinent for all soon-to-be abroad students is the importance of mental preparation and sustainability.
What do I mean by mental preparation and sustainability? Deciding to study abroad can induce an unsettling state of mind, often met with excessive anxiety. Not only was I barraged with such fervor before departing to Rome, but I have been confronted with hearty portions of ups and downs since my arrival. So how does one approach the stresses of studying abroad with composure? Join me, as I share some advice and methods for coping with the psychological roller coaster and how to make the most out of the ride.
Before You Go
You’ve survived the drudgeries of planning for your trip abroad (e.g. visa application, registration, etc.), and now it’s a waiting game. This period of limbo was a mentally exhaustive part of the process for me, due to the uncertainty of expectations. I had little to no knowledge about the local people who would host me, how they would treat me, or to what degree homesickness would ensue. I was enthusiastic but stuck in a regretful funk for making such a bold decision to leave home. Such feelings occur in many soon-to-be abroad students, and likely will happen to you before departure on your first study abroad experience. So what can you do to alleviate this “headache?" Review the key points below, and don’t sweat it…this is going to change your life for the better.
1) Remember, You Are Not Alone
Prior to abandoning your cozy roots, expect a loss of comfort and possibly the sense that the trip you are about to embark upon is dangerous and untried. These are normal feelings; I felt them for months up until the moment of my arrival. It’s fundamental to acknowledge that thousands, if not millions of students have experienced such emotions while wearing the same heavy shoes currently on your feet.
To lessen the angst, seek out advice from friends who have previously studied abroad; they can provide reassurance regarding why this is a positive choice. If you are still not convinced, flex your millennial muscles and utilize the internet to find firsthand accounts of study abroad experiences. Consider yourself now inducted into one of the most enlightened "clubs" in existence—a family of like-minded peers who will happily bestow guidance and join you in spirit.
2) Do Your Due Diligence
Just as it’s not recommended to attend a job interview lacking background knowledge about the organization in which you are seeking employment, it’s not wise to go abroad without researching your host country. Although the idea of research doesn’t get the average person excited, it serves a critical purpose and provides peace of mind to someone who is not yet well-traveled.
To start, search broadly and then slowly narrow the focus. For instance, language barriers were of great concern for me. Although knowing that many Romans speak English, I researched to discover whether there is the expectation that I have a general comprehension of Italian. Narrowing the search, I concentrated on common courtesy practices for intercultural conversation. I learned that it is respectful to attempt, even if it feels embarrassing, to speak Italian first; this results in a more welcoming disposition from the locals. Jumping straight into speaking a foreign tongue, well…that’s synonymous to slapping Romans in the face. Thanks to Google for saving their metaphorical cheeks!
3) Set Open-Minded Goals
Unfortunately, I cannot tell you why you are studying abroad, or what you should be looking to achieve; this is for you to decide. Take a long period to ponder your objectives, as they will drive your mental motivations for the upcoming months. If stuck, here are a few introspective questions to get you started:
- What is your purpose for studying abroad?
- Why is going abroad of value to you?
- What type of experience do you want?
For me, it was necessary to redefine the concept of “normal.” I desired a new perspective on my own culture’s social interactions, work styles, and thinking patterns in comparison to the Italian way of life. Lastly, I used the new situation in order to strive to learn about myself: why and how I approach and handle situations the way I do, in an attempt to renew an understanding of what it meant to be “me.”
Needless to say, there is an overwhelming degree in which an individual changes throughout their formative, collegiate years. Studying abroad can provide yet another opportunity to discover a resuscitated sense of being. An integral part of tackling any challenge is to come out an improved person. Be willing to accept and embrace your new opinions, perspectives, and personality.
|Some of the busy night-life in Rome, here in front of the Pantheon. Photo ©TransitionsAbroad.com.
Now that you are in your new home and hopefully acclimated to an alternative way of life, you can expect a new set of challenges ahead. Perhaps you’ve regained a sense of comfort, made friends, and become familiar with the surrounding neighborhoods—doesn’t it feel great to be abroad? It should! Fortunately, there are many great times ahead. Unfortunately, you may succumb to a few less-than-ideal periods. Take advantage of the following tips to ensure a positive and eager outlook:
1) Do Things That You Normally Wouldn’t Do
Living abroad serves as the perfect theater for trying new things. Don’t hesitate to act outside of your ethnocentric boundaries. You will meet plenty of fellow study abroad students who tend to shy away from local norms; this includes but is not limited to the following:
- Unadventurous eating habits
- Frequenting American-style venues
- Reluctance to make local friends
Do not fall into the trap of cultural convenience. Although it may feel comfortable, by so doing you will undoubtedly fail to recognize much of the unique character offered by the host country.
Try adapting your routine to that of the locals. Eat what they eat. Drink what they drink. Go where they go. Do what they do. Although being a follower is not always considered a charismatic quality, don’t be hesitant to give up a bit of your personal freedom for the sake of freeing your mind. Being open-minded with unrestricted affirmation will provide opportunities for the fullest cultural immersion experience.
Safety tip: As a word to the wise, be careful to try new things using sound judgment and common sense. Trying new things does not imply putting yourself in dangerous situations due to peer pressure. Be venturous, but be smart.
2) Use Your Support System
Studying abroad can be both mentally and physically draining, but thankfully there is an elaborate support system available to help you along the way—so take advantage of it! Consider your parents, friends, and advisors—to mention just some of the people you know well—as part of your network. You can rest assured that everyone is anxious to hear about your travels and experiences. Putting your journey into perspective through verbal contextualization is very helpful, and it can also be quite soothing to hear familiar voices.
After my first few weeks living in Rome, with the initial excitement dissipated, I experienced a debilitating sense of homesickness. Homesickness? I’m 23 years old and have been living away from home for years…why is it that I’m homesick now? There are multiple reasons for the diagnosis, but regardless, it is a tiresome and common illness. What is the best treatment? Schedule time to converse with those whom you miss most. It can be therapeutic to vent any frustrations while being
granted a small taste of what you miss most…home.
| Check out the following advice for communicating while abroad:
3) Focus on the Ultimate Goal
All great accomplishments come with a price: the hardships and effort required to reach the achievement. Studying abroad does not avoid this impasse. As invigorating as the experience can be, it will surely test your level of patience. Like some described above, these “tests” vary from homesickness, goal incompatibilities amongst students, over-promotion of the party culture, lack of consideration for local norms, or simply a living environment that is not harmonious.
Whatever the reason(s) may be, try to recall why it is that you chose to study abroad in the first place. Consider a few of the benefits you will have gained upon returning home: an improved sense of self, unparalleled memories, and a more mature global perspective. In the end, you will have gained an irreplaceable cultural experience that will permanently shape the individual you are and continue to become.
|A view of Venice from the Grand Canal.
Live. Experience. Grow.
Even by intimately following the guidelines suggested above, you will not fully escape the study abroad blues. Take note of any troubles you experience while abroad, and try developing your own methods of alleviation. Maybe in the near future, you will be able to “pay it forward” and provide your guidance and wisdom to another soon-to-be study abroad student.
For now, enjoy yourself. It could be years, even decades before you are overseas again. Pause, and take in the subtleties that make living at your current location so worthwhile. Relax, and bask in the bountiful treasures that the world around you has to offer. Perhaps you will uncover a new sense of home; I surely have.
Safe travels, friends.
|The author in Cinque Terre, Italy.
Daniel King—originally from Charlotte, North Carolina—is a current senior, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in finance with an international business minor from The University of Louisville, located in the bluegrass state of Kentucky. In his free time, Daniel has passions for fitness, adventurous dining experiences, and playing the electric guitar. To see more of Daniel’s study abroad experience, please visit his blog at www.acarolinianabroad.wordpress.com.