What No One Tells You About Studying Abroad

Spending my spring semester in Vienna was life-changing. My school building used to be a palace, I got to see operas for less than the price of a latte, and the coffee and cakes were some of the best I’ve ever had. I had so many unbelievable experiences, I lost count.

That being said, there’s a lot about studying abroad that doesn’t get advertised. People love to talk about their craziest travel stories and the highlights of their stay. I walked past the Wiener Staatsoper every day on the way to class. I made friends with a group of wholesome Irish dads for a night. I also took naps, watched Netflix, and cooked breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

People have lots to say about going abroad.  Here’s what no one tells you:

 

You need time to be a person.

As much as I loved exploring the city of Vienna and finding fun things to do, I also had to cook, clean, and do my laundry. I was really tired a lot of the time. I’m introverted, and I have anxiety and fibromyalgia, so it’s necessary for me to take rest-and-recharge days periodically.  While studying abroad is an exciting opportunity, you have to remember that it’s not a vacation. You still need to live your life and attend to the more mundane aspects.

It’s not wasteful to take an afternoon to binge-watch Queer Eye or Buzzfeed Unsolved.  If you were living in your own home city, you wouldn’t even question it.  Besides, sometimes even the more mundane life tasks can feel like an adventure, like learning new words, trying new foods at the grocery store, or doing homework in an iconic kaffeehaus or public park.  Regardless, know that you’re not wasting your limited time in your host city. You’re just taking care of yourself so that you can experience things fully tomorrow.

It can get really lonely.

Going from Kenyon, a small school where I felt very secure in my friendships, to Vienna, where I didn’t know anyone, was at times overwhelming. The other students in my program also were Americans studying abroad, and I made friends whom I explored and travelled with, but I didn’t have a default friend group or a super close relationship with anyone. While I don’t mind doing things alone (in fact, I rather enjoy it most of the time), there were a lot of times when I wished I could just fly my best friends from home over there with me.

One point to remember, however, is that a lot of other students are experiencing the same thing. Generally, whenever I told someone that, while I loved being in Vienna, I was missing my friends from home, they could relate. It’s a good opportunity to invite people to grab a drink or go on a weekend trip—no one wants to be alone all the time. It also can’t hurt to reach out to locals, which I successfully did on a few occasions. It may not be the same bond you have with your friends from home, but it’s better than going to the bar alone.

 

Explore your host country!

Studying abroad is different from regular school in many ways, one of which is having time to go on weekend trips to other cities. I got to visit Budapest, Prague, Athens, Bari, and Dublin, among others. But I also got to travel a lot within Austria. One of my favorite weekends was when I went skiing in the Austrian Alps, and another was spent hiking to an old castle and doing a wine tasting in Wachau.

I also spent plenty of my weekends in Vienna, as it has so much to offer. There were a lot of days, especially after class, when I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I just walked around or picked a museum I hadn’t seen yet. I found, in my opinion anyway, the best hot cocoa (Demel), the best coffee (Café Schwartzenburg), and the best gluten-free cake (Café Landtmann) in the city. I saw six operas and three ballets, did yoga in an old stateroom-turned-art-gallery, and learned to polka, all just a short U-Bahn ride away from my apartment. 

You’ll never feel like you’ve done everything.

Look. The world is big. Huge. You’re not going to see all of it, or even all of one continent, in one or two semesters, especially not on top of your schoolwork. There are endless opportunities with only a finite period of time. While I encourage you to make the most of your abroad experience, whatever that means for you, don’t leave with regrets about what you didn’t do. Think about what you did, which you could never have done if you’d decided to stay in the US. 

Maybe you went to six countries, maybe you went to ten. Maybe you stayed within the region or didn’t leave your host country at all. Whatever the case, all that matters is that you learned and grew from your experience.

The world will still be there (hopefully) in the future. As a college student, you have plenty of time to explore more later in life, so don’t worry about seeing absolutely everything now.

 

Adjusting to being back can be as hard as adjusting to being gone (or harder).

Reverse-culture-shock is real, and it can be sneaky in how it manifests. It took a couple of weeks for me to fully realize that my semester abroad, something I’d been looking forward to for a long time, was over. It took me a couple more to really start missing it. But I think the hardest part came much later—going back to school in the fall. It’s easy to forget how much can happen within one semester, and when I was seeing all of my friends again for the first time (some after over a year, since they were abroad in the fall), I felt out of it. There were inside jokes I wasn’t in on, there was gossip I hadn’t heard, and there was a lot that had happened in my life that they didn’t know about.

For the first few weeks, everything seemed off.  When I left, I felt so secure in my relationships, and when I came back, I didn’t know what I felt.  But eventually, it went back to normal. Everything settled, and the time melted away. It just required a little patience, and being open with my friends about what I was feeling. 

Studying abroad was amazing. I saw and did incredible things, learned a lot, and took SO many photos. But it’s not all sunshine and daisies. It’s still your life, just in another place. Constant happiness is a lot to ask of anyone for any length of time. Sometimes seizing the moment means going to bed at 10 pm so that you can get up and go to your 9 am class. Sometimes it’s sitting in a café and reading a book, or trying to understand the local newspaper. 

Bottom line, life is life. There’s no right or wrong way to go about it, and it’s not all going to look like the brochure. But as long as you’re prepared and keep your own needs in mind, you can make it a semester you’ll never forget!

 

Image Credit: Author