You were SO excited for study abroad—it was going to be the time of your life! Between the amazing destination, new friends and crazy adventures, it was supposed to look a little something like The Lizzie McGuire Movie. Except it didn’t—not even close. Being disappointed by study abroad can feel like the worst thing ever, both when you’re there and wishing you were home, and when you’re home and have to answer the dreaded “How was it?” questions. Collegiettes, it’s not as bad as you think! Now that your far-from-perfect study abroad experience is over, here are a few things that will make the bitter memories a little sweeter.
1. You are not alone.
We talked to four collegiettes whose time abroad didn’t go at all as planned. Annie*, a recent graduate of Colby College, says, “I have talked with a lot of younger girls who have been disappointed like I was when I studied abroad.” So it’s safe to say that not all study abroad experiences are picture-perfect—even though people make them sound like they were.
When counseling students who were disappointed, Daniel Brunstetter, Ph.D., the director of study abroad at the University of California, Irvine, “would tell stories of my own time abroad, not all of which are positive, to help the student realize they are not alone in not having the ‘perfect abroad experience’—whatever that means.”
Still don’t believe us? Mary*, a sophomore at the University of Alabama, had to share a key with two other girls while she was abroad. When her roommates decided to stay out late partying, Mary would often be locked out of her host family’s house. And that’s just one of the horror stories collegiettes told us. But, all of them found a silver lining in these experiences.
If you talk to people around you, chances are they’ll have had similar ups and downs during study abroad and will be able to give you some perspective!
2. You’ll know what to look for if you study abroad again.
Just because your first time studying abroad didn’t meet your expectations doesn’t mean you should give up on going again (if you were planning to). It just means that you’ll know what to avoid the next time!
When Dr. Brunstetter had a sub-par study abroad experience, he “found solace in my own reflections, in talking with others who had been abroad, and in going abroad again.” His advice is probably exactly what you need to hear: “If a student had a ‘disappointing’ experience in one place, then I would encourage them to perhaps go someplace different next time,” Dr. Brunstetter says. “If I had let the inevitable disappointments of my first expended time studying abroad guide me, then I would have missed out on so much the rest of the world has to offer.”
Mary didn’t let herself be discouraged by her unwelcoming host family and roommates. “I have participated in two other study abroad trips that have been much better, but I am always wary because of the bad experiences from my first one,” she says. Try looking into aspects of your next trip that you didn’t consider before, like which country would be best suited for you or what to pack, for instance.
3. It will help you grow.
Annie hated the subject she chose to study in Geneva, Switzerland and felt lonelier than ever during study abroad, but she didn’t let her disappointment get her down. “Looking back, I am so thankful I chose to study for a semester, even if I wasn’t ready or made the ‘wrong’ choice, because it taught me a lot about who I am as a person and I grew more in that semester than my whole four years at school,” Annie says.
But even the bad times aren’t necessarily as bad as you think. “I encourage students to think of their time abroad as a series of moments, as opposed to a single experience,” Dr. Brunstetter says. “There will be ups and downs, good experiences and bad experiences, joy, and sadness, challenges, triumphs and maybe failures too. I ask students to think of as many moments as they can during their time abroad and to put a word to each one, and then try to reflect on how each particular moment impacted the way they understand themselves, their own culture/country, and the culture/country they lived in while abroad.”
When you tell the story of your study abroad, you can focus on the positives instead of dwelling on the things that went wrong. But if you dig deep enough, you might find that even these lesser moments will be valuable to you in the long run.
4. It will make you appreciate the things you have back home.
But what if there were no positives, you ask? Maybe we’re playing devil’s advocate here, but here’s one positive for you: a bad experience will make you appreciate the things you already have that much more. “The whole experience left me feeling homesick and appreciative of my friends and family who cared about my health and happiness,” Mary concludes. Just remember how comforting it was to come home after your trip didn’t go as well as you’d hoped!
5. It could be a sign that something else is going on in your life.
When your stay goes wrong, it could be because of circumstances way out of your control—or it could be because something is keeping you from having a good time.
Michelle*, a senior at the University of California, Santa Barbara, admits that she could have had a much better study abroad experience if she hadn’t been thinking about her bad relationship the whole time. “I studied abroad in Paris last year, and while I had a lot of fun and experienced so much, I definitely felt held back by my boyfriend back home,” Michelle says. “My relationship was in a bad place when I left, and for the whole semester I was so focused on trying to repair it that I didn’t fully immerse myself into this amazing opportunity.”
While Michelle wishes she could do it over, it showed her that she needed to focus more on herself and less on her boyfriend at that time in her life. Your not-so-great time abroad could help you understand another problem you’re having—and fix it!
Had a bad study abroad experience? You’re not alone, collegiettes! Even if your time in another country wasn’t what you expected, you can focus on the things you learned about yourself—and on how awesome you can make the next time you travel, now that you know what can go wrong.
*Names have been changed.