Nothing is perfect, and while study abroad does come pretty darn close, it is not without its problems. Whether it's the cultural norms tripping you up, you are missing home like crazy, or you are lacking motivation for your studies, many international students experience a number of different challenges unique to their life abroad.
However, a road bump here and there does not have to derail you or detract from your overall time abroad. The best way to mitigate potential problems is to feel prepared to face them.
You never thought you would say it, but you ACTUALLY miss your kid sister, you ACTUALLY miss Mom's terrible cooking, and you ACTUALLY regret not packing your favorite stuffed animal for the long journey abroad. It is perfectly healthy and normal to feel homesick, just do not let it become a crippling part of your experience abroad. Your support networks are still there!
There are a number of ways to quiet down the loud voices in your head reminding you just how far away from home you actually are. You can get involved in new interests or clubs or adventures in your study abroad destination, you can call up friends/family/advisors for a bit of advice and an ear to listen, you can find a taste of home by hitting up the local Starbucks and treating yourself, you can start practicing yoga, meditation, journaling or other self-awareness activities.
Most importantly, be sure to avoid spending hours on end perusing Facebook or your other favorite social media websites – this is counterproductive and actually feeds your feelings of homesickness, rather than eradicating them.
No matter how many maps you pour over or street names you memorize, you will inevitably find yourself in a sticky situation in an unfamiliar place
First of all, do not panic. Your initial response may be to freak out, but even if it is the late hours of the night or you are in a sketchy part of town, you WILL get through this!
Come prepared for any adventure around the city with handy maps. Write down helpful phrases in the local language pertaining to your situation, such as “Help me, I am lost” or “Can you please direct me to the nearest hotel/gas station/bus stop?” Travel guidebooks are especially helpful and usually contain a section dedicated to this very problem.
If you are extra travel-savvy, you will also keep a stash of emergency cash, perhaps at the bottom of your purse, for these very situations.
Rut-roh! Despite all of your best efforts to plan ahead, budget, and track your expenses throughout the semester, you may have had one or two gelato scoops too many or splurged a bit too much on that weekend in Santorini. No one can blame you for running your bank account to its double digits. Even so, it is your responsibility to stretch your cash until your return home.
Before leaving on your study abroad program, consider setting aside an extra $200-$300 dollars back home. Give your parents access to it, so should you need to tap into your reserves, they can help transfer the money to your account for use.
Once you catch on that your funds are quickly dwindling, pump the breaks. Be extremely conscious and hyper-sensitive to only purchasing necessities versus desires. If all else fails, hit up the Bank of Mom and Dad for an advanced birthday gift or loan. We are sure they would not want their baby to suffer while abroad (just do not expect exorbitant amounts of money!).
You have had but a taste of this great, big, beautiful world and are, in a word, ADDICTED. How can your teachers possibly expect you to sit in a lecture hall, reviewing Italian vocabulary words, when you could just as well be out exploring, checking out new museums, actually USING your language skills, etc?
Do not kid yourself. You would not be actively studying during your wanderings around the city.
It is called "study" abroad for a reason, and by its very name requires an academic effort on the part of the student. Since you are taking classes, it is important that you stay committed to your coursework (otherwise you might lose your scholarship, crash your grade point average, or get kicked out of your program altogether!).
Remember that your classes complement your exploring. While there is value in the act of living abroad in it of itself, if you are truly maximize the learning potential of the experience, you need to get your butt into your classroom!
DISCLAIMER: Ripping hair out and/or punching a hole in the wall is NOT the best way to respond when your Skype dates fall through, you have to wake up at 2 am to call your bank during normal business hours back home, or your jet lag is positively insufferable.
Trying to navigate two time zones on opposite ends of the planet can be frustrating at best. You constantly have to double check which times are appropriate to which time zone, and get in the habit of making phone calls suuuuper early in the morning or late in the evenings.
If you carry a smart phone, it is advised to add any relevant time zones to your time keeping apps. Commit the time difference to memory (6 hours behind, 12 hours ahead of time + 1 day). The sooner you can do this, the easier things will be on your end – though you might still need to constantly remind your friends and family back home what time your FaceTime chats will be!
One often overlooked side-effect of studying abroad is that your friends and family will be getting psyched about stuff you have never even heard of. While I actually recount my disconnect from the Angry Birds movement as a blessing in disguise, I could not help but feel like an alien being when I returned home to others’ disbelief at my being “out of the loop.”
Do not fret – you are not a nerd! Whether it be a game for catapulting bodiless green piggies, the latest Justin Beiber single, or the awesome new restaurant that opened in town, things will change and evolve during your time away. It is important to accept this fact, and revel in knowing that your time out of the loop is temporary. Just tack it on your list of things to look forward to upon your return home – maybe your friends will host a “Get back in the swing of things!” event for you.
For some, this problem may actually be AWESOME. It is a tangible reminder that fads go away, as well as a cool opportunity to witness a craze that grows and dies quickly.
You suddenly look around and feel very alone. You are surrounded by “others,” and your looks, your fashion, your inability to communicate in the local tongue, or your general presence is very obviously… different. Never before have you felt so out of place or disconnected.
Find peace in knowing it’s unlikely that the locals are deliberately trying to make you feel unwanted in their culture. While you are a stranger to this new land, you will start to feel comfortable in no time – it might just takes you a few weeks to adjust.
Try to make friends with at least 1 local. I know it sounds like an easy task, but it does take effort to establish and cultivate meaningful relationships, especially across cultural boundaries. Your efforts will be well-rewarded, though; you will gain a friend and an ally. This relationship might give you the foot in the door you need to start feeling safe and relaxed in your new country, instead of separated and awkward.
Did you order chicken only to be served cat eye balls? Did you get on the train headed for Spain only to end up in Russia? Did you wave a friendly hand at a stranger only to be spat on?
Communication barriers are a reality of living abroad and making sense of foreigners’ lives. You can choose to let these follies stress you out, or you can take them in stride and chalk it up as another learning opportunity.
Make an honest effort to familiarize yourself with local cultural norms and lingo. If you are not fluent in the host country’s first language, carry around a translation dictionary or fill up your smart phone with related foreign language apps. Befriend locals and ask for tips and advice for ways to more authentically interact with strangers.
At the end of the day, you should not let the fear of offending someone or speaking incorrectly keep you from interacting healthily within the host culture. You will learn with time, and if you are patient with yourself (and conscious not to repeat mistakes, lest you get spat in the face TWICE), you will feel like a bi-lingual superhero before you know it.
You have fallen in love with this new place. You love everything about it – the sights, the sounds, the smells, the energy. More importantly, you love the YOU that lives here. You feel more confident and self-assured than ever, and you are dreading the thought of returning home to family pressures, expectations, and responsibilities defined by others. You love the freedom, the adventure.
Everything in life is a learning opportunity, and returning home is a very crucial part of your overall experience studying abroad. Without returning home, you will not be forced to confront the newfound changes in yourself that you suspected while abroad.
The key is to take home with you the feelings of ecstasy and freedom that you found in your life abroad. Do not confuse the two locations as being polar opposites, whereby in one you are your best self and in the other you are simply pining for the former.
You might even consider moving abroad permanently or semi-permanently someday. The possibilities are endless!
Now that you are ready to anticipate common study abroad problems and take them in stride, you can focus on what is most important – having FUN. Enjoy your semester abroad!