The stereotypical idea of someone who has studied abroad is someone whose Insta is filled with aesthetic pictures and foreign men, and whose catch phrase is something along the lines of “study abroad changed my life” or “studying abroad was the best experience of my life you should totally do it.” This is such a strong stereotype that it’s made its way into movies, tv, and even card games. While I may talk about my experience abroad a fair bit, my reflection on my experience tends to be quite different from the stereotype. First and foremost, studying abroad is not for everyone, in fact I’m not entirely sure it was for me. When you’re getting ready to go, they ask you all these questions about how you cope with stress and culture shock, but the experience is so far removed from what you are used to, and I know for myself and some of the others I travelled with that these coping mechanisms just didn’t cut it. Immigration paperwork and bureaucracy is confusing and stressful – and in your second language. If you do an immersion program, classes you would usually feel super smart in, you may feel like a kindergartener sitting in a room of Ph.Ds. I felt helpless, scared, and my mental health took a massive hit. I failed classes – something I’ve never done before. I’ve come back feeling like a failure. There was a wide variety of things that made these two semesters so difficult. Lots of adjustments have to be made – how you interact with professors, waiters, even other students changes. You have to learn to be flexible – trains, buses, connections and more will be late, missed, or you will misunderstand how something worked and will end up 20 minutes away from where you should be. You have to be ready to ask questions – something I really struggled with. If you’re like me and coming from a campus you feel safe and comfortable in, where you are involved and know the ropes, going somewhere where you have to completely start over and try to rebuild all of that – and not in your native language – is incredibly hard, and can make you feel insecure and make you doubt your own intelligence. Studying in a place like Germany where the culture is blunt and straight-forward doesn’t exactly help boost your confidence either. Still you have to learn to ask, and for some that is incredibly difficult.
That’s all not to say that studying abroad is a bad experience or something you shouldn’t do. In fact, despite everything above, I don’t regret going. It taught me a great deal about what I can handle – and what I can’t. It taught me to function as an adult and expanded my language capabilities. I got to bond with friends from home in a way I never would have within the US. I got to explore sites centuries older than anything I had ever seen before. It definitely changed my life, but it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. It tested me, tested my endurance and my capabilities to problem solve.
And some parts of studying abroad are absolutely amazing. I got to meet people from all over the world and talk about our cultures. Even just comparing basic day-to-day activities can lead to fascinating conversations about cultural norms and beliefs. Finding ways to immerse yourself in the larger culture while also sharing parts of your own can be an amazingly rewarding experience. Some of the best conversations I had were with random people while just walking in the woods behind my dorm, or some of the weirdest experiences were just trying to find the ingredients to bake an apple pie. I spent peaceful days in ruins from the 800s, and in museums with ancient temples inside, and days of worry and discomfort in the middle of Paris during protests that will go down in the history books, and in Ireland as one of the largest winter storms they’ve ever had hit. The experiences ran the gambit, and that’s generally the case. You just have to try to take everything as an opportunity for growth, and know that you are in the right place at the right time, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
The whole study abroad experience is full of twists and turns and ups and downs. Sometimes it feels like the downs outweigh the ups, and getting home can’t seem like it could come soon enough. But at the end of the day, it is an experience that will shape your perspective from then on, in one way or another. It’s not a walk in the park, but every struggle is worth the results.
First image courtesy of SplitShare from Pixabay
All other images taken by author