Studying abroad is not a vacation. Although the university or high school may be in a foreign country, your experience abroad will be completely different from that of a traveler’s or a tourist’s experience. Seven major changes incur all at once — a new school, different friends, a new living situation, a foreign culture, a foreign language, new activities, and a changed daily routine. Culture shock, homesickness, and stress are major concerns when experiencing all seven changes simultaneously.
Studying abroad is intended for learning, but discovering your new culture doesn’t have to wait until landing. Much of a country’s culture is shaped by its history, traditions, and current events. Understanding these can help mitigate culture shock. Search online or visit the local library to find answers to the following questions.
- What are the key historic events of the country?
- What is the country’s political system like?
- Is there a predominant religion in the country? What are its basic teachings and traditions?
- How are Americans perceived in the country?
- Do you understand the current hot issues and topics in the country?
- How is the basic etiquette in conversing, dressing, and eating different?
What are your motivations to study abroad?
- To travel?
- Have fun?
- Experience a new culture?
- Get away?
- Learn about yourself?
- Gain life skills?
- Take a break from your current school life?
- Meet new people?
- Become fluent in another language?
- Improve your academic background?
- Challenge yourself?
- Something else?
Decide how these motivations shape your expectations while abroad. As my training with Rotary International taught me, the best expectations are none at all. Expectations are bound to disappoint because the country and culture are unfamiliar to you. Even if you’ve visited the country before, your experience as a student will be different from your time as a tourist. Decide if your expectations are healthy and realistic. Aim for low or no expectations.
On a scale of 1 (what is this?) to 10 (expert), how well does each of these characteristics describe you? Work to improve, or at least beware of, characteristics you lack.
- Culturally sensitive?
- Keen at observation?
- Able to laugh at yourself?
- Able to manage personal expectations?
Culture shock and significant change can cause stress to the mind and body. Learn to recognize the signs. Create a ‘guidebook’ before departing on how you’ll manage stress and other turbulences. Include how to manage homesickness and what to do if a debit or credit card is stolen. With a step-by-step guide by your side, addressing these difficult situations is more manageable.
Write down a list of ways to de-stress yourself. Write and seal a ‘rainy day’ letter to yourself to open when you’re feeling sad or overwhelmed. Decide who will be part of your support system while abroad, how you will connect with people in the new country, and how you will create new opportunities and adventures.
No matter how well-planned or how knowledgable you are, expect turbulence. Culture is a challenge to understand because it’s hidden below the surface of a country, but don’t let this scare you. Peel the layers away one-by-one. Most importantly, remember to relax and enjoy — everything will be okay; you’re about to embark on one of the best experiences of your life!
How did you prepare to study abroad?