How to Survive Studying Abroad (From Someone Who Has Done It Three Times!)

Passport Number 2Studying abroad was one of the best decisions of my undergraduate career. I was fortunate enough to get to spend a summer at the University of Cambridge drinking tea and touring castles; to go “abroad” to Washington, DC, almost 2,500 miles away from my home university, where I attended research seminars and interned at a foreign policy think tank.

I was also able to finish my final undergraduate semester here at the University of Geneva, where I spend my free time touring Europe and watching diplomats at the UN work through the biggest political issues of our time.

I wouldn’t trade my study abroad experiences for anything. I’ve met incredible people, seen incredible places, and gotten to know both the world and myself better.

I’ll also be the first to admit that studying abroad isn’t always wonderful. Spending months in an unfamiliar place can be scary and isolating. Leaving your community behind means spending a lot of time alone, perhaps more than you’re used to.

At the same time, being thrown into a new community means spending more time socializing with strangers as you settle in (a frightening thing for introverts like me.) Separation from friends and loved ones means being cut off from your support system, and makes it harder to deal with tough days or homesickness. New cultures often come with culture shock, new academic systems and teaching philosophies often come with frustration and misunderstandings, and new languages often come with miscommunications and embarrassing moments.

That’s not even to mention the problem of logistics – I’ve gotten lost, nearly missed trains and flights (almost always due to public transportation mishaps), confused currencies, misplaced important documents, been pick-pocketed, and mixed up visa paperwork more times than I’d like to admit. Studying abroad opens up worlds of opportunity, but is rarely easy.

Three study abroad programs in, I’ve figured out the pattern. Students spend the months leading up to their study abroad programs building up beautiful, romantic ideals of the place they’re headed. Midterms and finals at your home university make the idea of a distant, unfamiliar place an appealing one.

The first week of the program feeds this dream (Tourist pictures! Sightseeing!), but as the novelty wears off and the dream fades, the isolation and culture shock start to sink in. For many students, navigating unfamiliar food, buildings, weather, and people becomes exhausting, and these students retreat to their rooms, where they end up squandering their limited time abroad trying to lessen their homesickness by spending weekends and evenings in. I’ve never seen more Netflixing, Skyping, or junk-food snacking than I did in my dorm buildings in Cambridge, DC, and Geneva (I’ve fallen into the same trap a few times myself).

The trick, it turns out, is an easy one: remind yourself how cool and special it is to be able to spend a whole semester in another part of the world, and remind yourself how few people get that opportunity. Remember that you can always return to more familiar environments after your program, and that a few months isn’t a very long time.

Embrace the differences between people and places as part of what makes the world such an interesting and beautiful place, and remind yourself that improving your understanding of communities different from your own makes you a more tolerant, understanding person. Keep in mind that the cultural and travel skills you’re picking up are increasingly valuable life tools in our globalizing world, and know that you’ll never look at your own culture and community quite the same way again – you’ll be more aware of the mannerisms, attitudes, habits, and other attributes that make you and your community who you are, because you’ll understand how few people in the world are like you in those ways.

Whether studying abroad is fun and exciting or whether it’s frustrating and frightening is to a great extent dependent on your attitude while you’re there — but the great thing is that either way, it is enriching, special, and completely worth it.

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Courtney Tran is a student at UC Berkeley, studying Political Economy and Rhetoric. In high school, she was named a National Merit Finalist and National AP Scholar, and she represented her district two years in a row in Public Forum Debate at the National Forensics League National Tournament.