So you’ve decided to study abroad, and like most people, you’re a little bit nervous. You’re in a new country at a new school with a completely different set of rules, and it’s probably pretty likely that you know nobody. But think about it—how did you feel when you first went to high school? College? Summer camp? It’ll be hard at first, but you’ll settle into a routine and make friends, and the end will come so quickly that you’ll wonder how you were ever nervous in the first place. Here are some of the phases of studying abroad, how to deal with culture shock and homesickness, and a few other tips that may come in handy for you 🙂
Phase 1: Honeymoon
This is the time to explore your new environment and make friends, while you’ve still got that excitement in you! Most schools host an orientation week and events for incoming international students. Go to these events! It can be anything from a pub crawl to a beach trip to a guided city tour, and you should do it all. You’ll learn a lot about where you’re going to be living, and you’ll meet tonnes of people! Remember that most of the other international students are just as nervous as you are, and they’re all in the same boat!
This will also be the phase where everything about your new culture excites you. You’ll do a lot. You’ll experience new things. You’ll have tonnes of fun! Schools usually ease you into classes and things as well, giving you a chance to accustom to different classroom rules and expectations. Lots of schools will also offer you a buddy, a student who is from your host institution who takes you out and gives you advice. If you want, sign up to have a buddy. There, you’ve already got one friend! Having a buddy can be a great way to get in with locals, who often know all the best places to go in your new city 😉
Phase 2: Culture Shock/Homesickness
Some people never get culture shock, but it’s usually a very real experience when it comes to being abroad. It can manifest itself in different ways, usually with depressive feelings, disinterest in trying new things, feeling angry or resentful towards your host country, and homesickness for the way things are in your own country. If this happens to you, know that it is completely normal, and 99% of the time, it will pass. Maybe you’re sick of being unable to find your favourite foods at the supermarket, or you don’t like the way your new school schedules your exams. Whatever it is, you’re bound to have issues with your new home because it’s different than what you’re used to! My advice is to try to embrace and understand it. Remember, you’re the visitor, and you would expect people to embrace your home country if they ever visited it. Stores are closed during siesta? Shop earlier. Tired of watching TV in Chinese? Download a movie and invite your friends over to watch it, in English. This is where those friends you made in your honeymoon phase will come in handy, because they’ve probably got some of the same feelings, and you can further bond over it!
If you find yourself missing people at home, make the time to call/Skype them! Another fun thing to do is write to your friends at home. They’ll love getting postcards, and receiving an unexpected letter in your mailbox can brighten your day!
Phase 3: Living Life
You’ve now been at your new school for awhile, and (hopefully) your culture shock has passed. It’s no longer weird to see people drinking in public, and you can slip easily into another language when you have to buy something from the market. You know where all the best clubs and restaurants are, and you’re making plans with your new local friends to do your group project together. I swear, it’s like you’ve never studied anywhere else! You may still occasionally feel frustrations or homesickness, but it definitely won’t be as frequent.
Phase 4: Saying Goodbye/Reverse Culture Shock
Like I said before, just as quickly as you’ve made life-long friendships, you’ll have to say goodbye and return to your home university! Thanks to Facebook and Skype, it’s easier than ever to keep in touch with friends abroad (and hopefully, you’ve made a lot of international friends, to have people to stay with if you ever visit their countries!). It’s very sad, but you’ll also likely be looking forward to going home!
Reverse culture shock is something that happens when you return home. People seem to talk less about this, and not everyone gets it, but for me it was a huge struggle. It’s just like culture shock abroad, but it can happen even when you return to a place you thought you knew. I did not have a good re-entry in Canada, and wished constantly to be back abroad in Spain. It’s helpful to keep in touch with your new friends at this time, as well as to talk to other former exchangees to see if the can relate. My school hosted a “re-entry” session where we could all talk about our experiences. The worst part about it is that studying abroad likely will have changed you in many ways. You may feel like you’ve matured, seen so many things, and had so many great experiences… and yet, life back home is exactly the same. Nothing has changed, and it might feel weird at first. This too shall pass, but remember that these feelings are also normal if you happen to experience them!
The Best Things To Do While Abroad
Make the most of it! This will not only be great for you in the moment, but studying abroad looks great on a resume! You’ve got global perspective now! Here are some things I suggest doing (and not doing) while studying abroad:
1. Get local! I studied in a smaller Spanish city, and while everyone swoons over Madrid and Barcelona, I developed a soft spot for my quirky, architecturally beautiful city of Bilbao. Definitely travel while you’re in another country or continent, but don’t forget about where you’re living. We traveled the coast of the Basque country and we loved what we found! Support the local team (unless they’re Bilbao), try the local dishes, and try to make local friends!
2. Get involved! Joining a club at home helped you to make friends, so why not abroad? Besides the international students group, take a chance by joining an intramural sports team or Maths club. If you’re in a country where English isn’t the first language, consider joining a language exchange club! You’re usually paired with a local student and have conversation hours where you practice each other’s languages. Besides making another friend, you’ll have insight to a new culture and get to teach someone about yours too!
Still, it doesn’t hurt to go to events that are just for international students too. A club in Bilbao had “Erasmus parties” every Thursday, which were always themed and fun! Try something new, you’ll be glad you did!
3. Don’t forget why you’re there. You’re studying abroad, remember? Go to class, do your assignments, get your credits! It feels like you’ve got nothing to worry about in another country, especially when you don’t have a work visa so most of your free time is spent hanging and out having fun. Still, if you come back with nothing to show for it, you may not feel so great. Try to stay on task!
4. Try something new. I’ve wanted to be an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher for several years now, and I received a mass email calling for volunteer English teachers to teach a conversation class in a small town nearby to Bilbao. I applied and I got the job, and it was amazing! I got to explore a new little town and meet tonnes of locals, one of whom graciously became like a mother to me, inviting me to her home for weekend visits and taking me to festivals and cafes with her family. We are still in touch! Best of all, the experience looked great on my resume and helped me to get a job teaching English full-time in China! If I hadn’t taken the chance to try it in Spain, I might not have gotten the new job, so my best advice is to open yourself up to the opportunities and go for it!
Did you study abroad? Where, and what was your favourite part? What advice would you give students who want to go abroad? Tell me! I wish everyone the best of luck!