Studying abroad IS awesome—but you should know that it isn’t ALL fun and games and exotic traveling and fun pictures on Facebook. In fact, while it is one of the most rewarding experiences of your life, it is also one of the most difficult. Why? Because you are removed from your comfort zone both mentally AND physically—you are displaced from your country and the people you love and all of the cultural context you’re used to. And while this is how you learn and grow, it is also not easy. Based on what I have read in articles, heard from others, and learned through experience, there are a few psychological phases you can expect to go through when you study abroad. If you are currently abroad or thinking about it, it might be a good idea to familiarize yourself with these stages. That way, you can understand why you are feeling the way you are and what to expect.
Euphoria. This is the stage at the beginning of your experience, when you are being introduced to a new, exotic, exciting culture and everything is a “first.” You are experiencing new things, meeting new people, learning and having fun. I like to call this the “vacation” stage, because this is before you really understand that you are there to live and learn—everything feels like a vacation, and therefore you are in the “vacation” mindset where everything is a novel experience and a treat. A friend of mine went abroad earlier this summer and said she and her friends in the program called this “Fake Life.”
Culture Shock. Once the initial euphoria starts to wear off, things go from exotic and exciting to overwhelming. You may find yourself feeling depressed and experiencing strong waves of homesickness and loneliness. It is easy to feel isolated from the world around you, as instead of seeing the cultural differences as exciting and fun you may instead find them daunting, unfamiliar and even negative. In this stage it is easy to begin drawing unfair comparisons between your home culture and the new culture. To help combat all of this, it is important to keep a few things in mind. First of all, keep your mind open and understand that EVERY culture, yours included, has its negative and positive sides—there is no “better” or “worse” culture, there are only DISTINCT cultures. Also understand that the situation is temporary, and you will return to your home country sooner than you think—for this reason, remember that you are studying abroad to learn, and that you should take advantage of the time you have to try and understand more about the culture rather than reject it. That being said, realize that it is PERFECTLY NORMAL to feel this way. Don’t beat yourself up over it; it is completely understandable for you to feel overwhelmed and put-off by such a big change, and no one expects you to deal with it perfectly—so you shouldn’t expect yourself to do so either. In other words, go easy on yourself. Here are a few suggestions to help you through this phase; try a few out and see which one works best for you:
1. Make some time for yourself and do something you know makes you happy, be it taking a job, watching a favorite movie, or snuggling up with a good book.
2. Pamper yourself and allow yourself a break—buy that cute scarf you’ve been eying, or that new song on iTunes, or indulge in that way-overpriced can of imported Pringles.
3. Make it a date. Schedule a regular time to communicate with people at home that you can look forward to, or establish a habit of sending weekly updates to friends to keep them in the know—and request the same of them, so you can feel more involved back home as well.
4. Send some postcards. It’s a fun way to feel like you’re interacting with your family/friends back home while also sharing part of your experience abroad with them—therefore combining both environments in a positive way!
5. Blog or journal! It’s therapeutic, and it will help you get out your feelings in a way that helps you confront and analyze them.
6. Keep yourself busy! Try to get involved with something you know you love at home and do it in your new country. It will help keep you sane and may also turn out to be a rewarding experience where you meet new people and learn more.
7. Do something fun. Go out with some friends—shop, take a hike, grab a coffee, see a movie, try out a new bar—whatever you need to break up the monotony of the daily grind and get you out of that funk.
Adaptation/Acceptance. Once you have accepted that you will be homesick and depressed at times (and more importantly have forgiven yourself for feeling that way) you move into this phase. This is the phase where you have embraced your current situation and begin to reach out of your bubble and make the most of your time abroad. You will find yourself being affected less by the many cultural differences around you and even beginning to like some of them. What’s more, you may even find yourself beginning to adapt to the culture and act and think like the people around you. This is a great phase, because it’s the phase where you will get the most out of your experience—the phase where you change out of the “vacation” mindset and into the “living abroad” mindset, where you are investing your time abroad with the perspective of a member of the culture rather than just a visitor.
Reverse Culture Shock. This is an effect that can occur when you begin to feel as if you are adopting your new culture too much and losing your native identity. You may experience feelings of guilt that you are betraying your home country, or of panic that you are losing your sense of identity and changing too much. This is also perfectly normal, and it is important that you know that change is healthy. You are not betraying your culture by beginning to learn and adopt a new one—actually, in many ways, it may give you a new perspective on your original culture and may lead to a deeper appreciation of it. Also remember that no matter where you are living and what culture you are adopting, you’re still you—and you are defined by so much more than where you are living. You are simply growing and maturing and learning to adapt to the environment around you, which is a GOOD thing, not a betrayal or loss of your former identity. In fact, you are only enhancing yourself by broadening your perspective and experience in the world.
Re-initiation. This phase doesn’t occur until you return to your home country, but it is definitely worth mentioning and still a very real part of the study abroad experience. The fact of the matter is you may experience these phases all over again upon your return. Especially when you find yourself adapting to the foreign culture, returning back to your home country can be a bit of a shock. You may have romanticized your culture when you were homesick (it’s easy to do when you’re not actually living in the country) and find yourself disappointed by the negative aspects that you had forgotten. You may be frustrated that those around you don’t have as open or tolerant a perspective as you, but remember to be understanding: they haven’t had the same incredible experiences as you. These feelings will go away as you return back to the acceptance/adaptation phase again within your own home country.
The point of all of this is not to discourage you from studying abroad, because going through these phases is part of what makes it so worthwhile—as you go through each stage, you learn and grow even more. Instead, simply use this as a reminder that whatever stage you find yourself in, you are perfectly normal and it is okay to feel whatever you are feeling. Also, keep in mind that everyone goes through these phases at their own pace and in their own way. The most important thing is to embrace yourself and your experience in whatever phase you may be, and to not set unrealistic expectations for yourself. Unless you’re Superwoman, there will be some chinks in your armor, and that is OK. That’s what makes us human, and that’s what makes us beautiful and confident collegiettes™ that learn to face and overcome obstacles with s