The Flip Side of Studying Abroad: What the Brochures Won’t Tell You

You've seen the brochures. You've obsessed over a frenemy's Facebook pictures. Traveling to a foreign location is very well may be on everyone's college bucket list. But there’s a lot more to studying abroad than fancy beach getaways and double-tap-worthy selfie opportunities. Here are some things to consider before diving into an international excursion:

You may not get along with all of the students on the trip. Depending on your program, you may be traveling and/or living with students who aren’t from your normal group of friends; they may not even be your age or from your school. While many students come back from study abroad trips with great new friendships, there’s a chance you won’t click with your group.

Rachel Fisher, a psychology sophomore who studied abroad in Germany last summer, said that she couldn’t quite mesh with the lifestyles of some of the other students on the trip. When asked for advice on how to deal with said situations, Fisher recommended to not "feel like you need to stick with the group and configure your life abroad around what everyone else is doing. You’re there, after all, to explore a new place for yourself.”

Cresonia Hsieh, a journalism sophomore who studied abroad in the Dominican Republic and Spain last summer, similarly didn’t get along with many of the other students on the trip. However, like Fisher, it was after breaking from the pack and planning her own excursions that she felt she got the most out of it.

“On the very last day, we looked at the Lonely Planet guides all the places we should have gone to,” she said. “We ended up seeing the beautiful cathedrals that no one else got to see, and see them turn the lights on (in the city) at night. It was the best day, and I remember thinking ‘Wow, I would love to come back to Spain one day.’”

You may not have the best relationship with your host family. A lot of study abroad programs allow you to live with a host family to get a feel for the culture and language. Many students develop a great bond with their host family and even stay in contact long after the program is over, but there are definitely cases where the language barrier, overall temperaments and differing lifestyles make it difficult to fully enjoy the experience. Hsieh initially had a hard time adjusting to life with her host family in Spain.

“They weren’t living up to their expectations,” she said. “They were supposed to be cleaning once a week and providing meals for us, but I had water and toast for breakfast for six weeks straight.” The language barrier also posed unique challenges for Hsieh. When an already-damaged armoire door fell off and Hsieh told her host family, they accused her of getting drunk and breaking it herself.

Combined with the language barrier, Hsieh remembered, “I was getting really flustered because I couldn’t defend myself properly because I wasn’t as fluent in Spanish.” Eventually, however, Hsieh and her host family moved past the initial differences. “I did end up getting close to my host family. Because I spent two to three hours every day talking to them, my Spanish improved. Even when I was there, I didn’t regret it,” she said.

You may be overwhelmed by your classes and schoolwork abroad. Instagram posts may depict otherwise, but there is legitimate studying and stress when you study abroad. Hsieh’s trip to the Dominican Republic was especially demanding because of the combined service aspect of the trip. “I was studying three to four hours every night and five to six hours when I had quizzes,” she said. “I would wake up at 6 a.m. every day to volunteer for six hours, and then go to class.” In Hsieh’s language-intensive program, her classes were taught entirely in Spanish, which added to the stress of already-difficult courses. “It was not a relaxing trip,” Hsieh said.

You may fall prey to petty crimes and dangers. Even if you take the best precautions, travel inevitably makes you more susceptible to enterprising locals who can sniff out foreigners in seconds. Whether it’s up-charging a souvenir or pickpocketing you as you’re leaving the airport, definitely keep safety in mind. Hsieh was pickpocketed out of about $200 in Spain. “Don’t get a purse that hangs at your back,” she recommended. Additionally, Hsieh warned that you should always hold on to your purse, or it could get slashed and grabbed off you.

“Make sure to separate your money, and never let your defenses down,” she said. Despite these words of caution, remember the majority of places you travel to will constantly surprise you with their hospitality and compassion. Don’t let the risk of pickpocketers ruin your overall impression of a country or culture. 

We aren’t here to scare you away from an amazing study-abroad experience. Experiencing a new culture and living outside your comfort zone are opportunities you shouldn’t miss out on, especially at our age. Many students thoroughly enjoy their trips, would recommend it to anyone and would do it again in a heartbeat. Fisher said, “Your life at home isn’t perfect, so don’t expect your life abroad to be that way either.”