What To Do When Your Study Abroad Experience Goes Sour

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By Renee Reeves

This is supposed to be fun, right? I asked myself this question repeatedly during my semester abroad in Taiwan. Between managing a shifting class schedule, navigating a college bureaucracy unprepared for foreign students and struggling through “English” coding labs where we used mostly Mandarin, studying abroad in Taiwan was leaving me exhausted and depressed. After a semester of struggling, I decided that another semester of study abroad would do me more harm than good, and I chose to return home to the US a semester ahead of schedule.

If you’re frustrated, unhappy, struggling academically or wondering what the hype was about in the first place, don’t panic. Salvaging a bad study abroad experience isn’t impossible. From first doubts to (possibly) arriving back on US soil, here are five steps to follow when you’re considering cutting your trip abroad short.

1. Name the problem

Every exchange student deals with culture shock. If that’s you, seek support! There are plenty of of resources out there. Maybe, though, you’re struggling with something bigger than culture shock. Perhaps there’s a family emergency back at home. Maybe you’re feeling misled about your host school, or your new city has new challenges or you’re thinking of switching majors and feeling trapped in your current one. Naming your problems in clear, neutral terms is the first step to improving your situation.

2. Seek solutions

Once you’ve established why you’re unhappy, seek out people who might have solutions. Talk to people in your host school’s global student services office. They’ll be happy to find you a new host family, locate a language tutor or work out transcript issues. If your school doesn’t have a office for international students, try talking to an advisor from your department, faculty, or even campus mental health services. Many professors and faculty have been abroad themselves and are happy to help.

Your problems might follow you back to the US, so make sure to communicate with your home university. If time zones or international phone fees complicate communication, ask to set up an after-hours appointments with advisement or faculty through a service like Skype.

3. Make the choice about whether to stay

This step is undeniably the hardest and longest. Remember to think long-term, no matter how miserable you are now. Ask yourself:

●      Am I in danger right now?

●      Which will negatively impact me more in the future, staying here or going home?

●      Will my scholarships or GPA be seriously impacted if I leave early?

●      How much will leaving early impact my bank account?

●      Will I be able to graduate as planned if I leave early?

●      Can I emotionally handle pushing through another semester?

How much any one of these questions matters depends on your situation. In my case, I felt misled about my host school, but also knew that staying would mean wasting a semester of my scholarship while not making any progress towards graduation.

4. Explain your choice

Even if your parents are supportive, they will likely be concerned and surprised if you choose to leave your exchange program. Explain why things didn’t work out as planned, why you feel it’s in your best interest to return home, and how you’ll deal with issues like scholarships. Talk with your home university next, then follow their protocol for leaving your host university. Find out if you need to notify the government of your host country that you’re not staying as long as initially planned. When everything’s finalized, a brief note on social media can save you the trouble of repeatedly answering the same questions from friends.

5. Make the best of your trip

For the remainder of your time abroad abroad seek positive, unique experiences. Sign up for a cooking class or a dance class, or ask a friend to take you to that local hole-in-the-wall. Take an extended layover on the way home and visit a new city for a few hours, or stay in town and transfer into an intensive language program for a few months. Make sure to add your study abroad experience to your resume—even if it’s short, it’s valuable.

Whatever you choose, remember that traveling lets you grow your comfort zone, take chances, and learn more about yourself and the world around you. Coming home early, for whatever reason, isn’t failure or defeat. It’s simply a different sort of learning experience.