Ahoj everybody! I started this three-part series last spring to discuss some of the preparatory steps for living abroad that were making me anxious. Now, having just returned to the snowy Midwest, I wanted to share some of the experiences and lessons that made those six months of nerves worth it.
When I left for Prague last fall, I was pulling my hair out with apprehension. Those nerves soon subsided once I started to get settled in the Czech Republic. Although the homesickness hit at critical points, I easily had the time of my life last semester and would do it all over again.
Lesson 1: The Hardest Step is getting on the Plane
I genuinely believe this to be true. As someone who is often more comfortable being introspective than stomaching my fears, the weeks leading up to my departure were a major struggle. It was hitting me that I was about to move 5,000 miles away to a place where I knew no one and didn’t speak a lick of the language. I realized I was giving up a semester on campus with all of my friends. And most importantly, I was also contemplating everything I would miss when I was gone: holidays, birthdays and the comfort of the life I had started to build on my own. It would take more than my two hands to count the number of times I wanted to back out, and the final goodbye with my parents at the airport made me as nervous as when I had first been dropped off at college. During the semester, though, I came to find out that stepping foot on the plane was the hardest part of my journey. As intimidating as it may seem, I promise you won’t regret getting on the plane so long as you just put one foot in front of the other.
Lesson 2: Mindset is Everything
My actual travel day was not smooth sailing, but once I left the Prague airport and there was officially no backing out, my mindset quickly changed. This might have been the jet lag more than anything else, but I had an instant rush of adrenaline riding to my new apartment. Don’t get me wrong, the cultural and lifestyle adjustments were incredibly overwhelming. However, within a few days, I figured out that my mindset was going to be what made or broke my experience abroad. For as much planning as I had done, preparing to live abroad and living abroad are not the same thing. Though I never fully got used to being a fish out of the water, I became comfortable with being uncomfortable. Adapting my mindset to keep the challenges in perspective helped to dilute the culture shock.
Sidenote: One of the first things that we discussed as a program was the culture shock stages that we would naturally feel. Learning about these stages greatly helped lift my spirits when I was down and prevented me from overanalyzing and comparing my experience to my peers.
Lesson 3: Live in the Moment
I know this sounds cliche, but it rings true. There isn’t much to this other than to remember that it is okay to let loose a little bit. For me, the struggle was making sure I was still taking time to check in with myself in the midst of the chaos. However, as for travel or spending more time out on the town than you planned, embrace it! I would say YOLO here, but that would be more cliche than live in the moment… whoops. Regardless, there will come a time when you will likely feel exhausted. Give yourself a few weeks to figure out a good balance, but still make the most of every single day, no matter how that looks. I came home with new perspectives because I was out of my comfort zone through the mere nature of being abroad, and I would not have had my experience any other way.
Lesson 4: Trust Yourself
This one is maybe the most important here. Everyone goes into their study abroad experience in a different place. I showed up halfway around the world knowing absolutely no one. Actually following through on the boldest thing I had done taught me a lesson I will value for the rest of my adult life: Trust Yourself. Studying abroad can be a great test of your independence since nothing forces you to accept adulthood like completely starting over someplace new. While I expected to come home knowing myself a little better, the depth of my expectation was blown out of the water. As I started to integrate more deeply into Czech society, I drew new conclusions about myself and those around me. Be confident in your ability to “bloom where you are planted,” and if this is something you have dreamt about doing, take pride in the fact that you are accomplishing a long-held goal in your early 20s. Long story short, no matter how you got there, trust yourself that you are right where you are supposed to be.
Lesson 5: Appreciate the Underappreciated
When you are in a new place filled with exciting adventures, missing things like mundane Sunday afternoons or the small comforts of curling up with a book might make you feel ungrateful for the opportunity in front of you. However, I promise you, this is not the case. The longer I was abroad, the more I came to appreciate many of the things I took for granted at home, whether that was the ease of hearing English at the grocery store or having all of my belongings in one place (and trust me, after moving seven times in the last 12 months, I have come to appreciate this even more than I thought I would). This experience is incredible, but it is going to push you and it will inevitably get difficult. Ultimately, by the time I came home, I did not see my affinity for some of these small comforts as a bad thing but rather as a signal that I grew as a person while in Prague. Even as I said goodbye to a city I fell in love with and friends who I will forever share, remembering the smallest of comforts that were waiting for me helped me take the second hardest step of my journey: going home.
Lesson 6: Re-Entry is Difficult, but it is Rewarding
This is the lesson that I am still struggling with a month after landing stateside. Since returning to the life I had put on pause, I realized how much I had changed during my time abroad. Now the question is: how do I describe my experience whenever someone asks? It is challenging to describe it in a way that encapsulates all I want to say, but what I do know is that I came home as a more empathetic, quick-thinking and confident person. Re-entry has been more of a struggle than I was expecting, and reintegrating in the process of “reverse culture shock” is something I was prepared for even less. While I still don’t know fully how to answer the question, “Tell me about Prague,” I do know that I can take my new memories and use them to my advantage in my life at home. I had the opportunity to rework everything I thought I knew, and now I am even more grateful for the life and the friendships I have here.
Studying abroad had been a dream of mine for as long as I could remember. I ultimately surprised myself by following through on the far-fetched idea. I can honestly say, though, that it was the best decision I ever made, no exaggeration necessary. It is incredibly intimidating, and there are a lot of moving parts, yet if you have the ability and the desire to do it, please do. While this article is supposed to serve as a place for advice, it was also a great way for me to reflect on my experiences; therefore, as they say in Czech, Děkuji for reading and Na shledanou until next time!