“Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.”
― Anita Desai
For a lot of people, studying abroad is their first major trip out of the country. Sure, maybe your family has booked a cruise to the Caribbean or your AP European History class once spent a week in Rome. But study abroad is an entirely unique experience – both for those who have traveled a little and for those who have traveled a lot.
Nothing really prepares you for the newness of spending consecutive weeks or months of your life in another country. You move around on your own, often negotiating daily tasks with a family that isn’t yours, sometimes in a language that you haven’t mastered or don’t even know very well. Everything about living somewhere else is different, whether you have no stamps in your passport or several. And then, of course, if you decide to study or work abroad more than once, your second trip will be completely distinctive from your first, and your third from your second, and so on.
While you can’t know exactly what your experience will be like before you go – sometimes the only way to really know is by doing, am I right? – you can expect your mind, body, and spirit to go through certain stages as you attempt to process your surroundings. That’s what this post is about. By understanding common stages of adaptation, you can recognize some of the emotions most people deal with when they switch countries and attain deeper growth during your journey by not letting them knock you off your feet. So without further ado, let us walk through the Seven Steps of the Study Abroad Roller Coaster of Emotions.
- Preparing to go and leaving home: Unreal
At this point, we view our impending trip like a new Sufjan Stevens music video. We don’t really know what’s going on now or what’s coming up next. It doesn’t even feel real. You can buy your travel-sized shampoos, your hand sanitizer, your razors, and your set of adapters and convertors weeks ahead of time. You can pack days in advance, you can check and recheck your list and view your departure letter and e-ticket until your laptop literally explodes – but you still can’t visualize the adventure you’re about to undertake. When your stomach knots as you walk out of your house to go to the airport or when it into your throat as you board the plane, it’s as if you’re staring at one big question mark. Even veteran fliers might feel their heart skip a beat when the plane takes off . . . and that’s okay.
2. Arriving: Exhaustion.
Let’s face it: by the time your plane’s landing gear drops, you will be so ready to get off of your flight that you will pour out of the cabin door. Now is when you’ll have your first glimpse of your new home. You’re pumped. The trees look different, the airport is weird, and what is up with the cars. You want to see everything. You’ll probably be jittery from nerves and a lack of sleep by the time you find your study abroad group, and meeting so many other students and maybe even your host family in one day might leave you holding on to your own sanity by mere threads. Some people find this day disappointing – you have a desire to go check out everythinginthiscityrightnow, but the fact is, you’re wiped. You need food and you need sleep and you need to recuperate from jet lag. If you successfully recover your luggage and link up with the people that you’re supposed to link up with, this day has been a success. Try to relax; your body begs you.
- First Week: Elation
The First Week is the Best Week. You’ve rested a little bit, you’re ready to hit the ground running, and everything out there is so.very.exciting. You’ll fall in love with local brands of soda. You’ll fall in love with waiting at the bus station. You’ll fall in love with everything. The currency and the way people talk will seem just beautiful to you. You’ll find the peanut butter grouped under foreign foodstuffs – and you’ll think that’s awesome. Typically, your initial days of exploration are done beneath the wings of your study abroad program so you feel safe, and it’s not too hard to get close to people who are also in a new country – you’ll make friends within your group. Between running around with these new friends and being guided through your host city’s most significant cultural sites, you’ll be so stimulated and so interested that you might feel overwhelmed. Your Skype phone calls to your parents will contain enough adrenaline to make both you and them dizzy.
- Second week: Relapse
Then, of course, orientation ends and classes kick in. All the aspects of daily life that you’ve taken for granted since you could walk and talk suddenly rear up to face you head on. You have to understand how to work your host family’s shower and stove, even when they’re not around. Getting on a bus, buying bread, or finding a pay-as-you-go cellphone can feel like a marathon. Your highs become really high and your lows become really low, and the extremes tend to stress you out. You might even feel detached from what’s going on around you – it’s hard to integrate into a place where you struggle to tell the taxi driver where you’re going. Try as you might to make local friends, social etiquette and culture boundaries – not to mention language difficulties – sometimes frustrate your efforts at first. This is when you realize that you are not on a vacation; you have actually moved (even if temporarily). It’s also the point where most people get really homesick and their Skype sessions go from ecstatic to teary. You don’t know how to dress or how to act. You feel out of place, and you don’t know what to do. Remember: it’s alright.
- The meat of your experience: Settling in
It’ll take a little while for you to memorize the route that gets you to and from class or to and from the store. When you least expect it, though, you will know exactly what bus or train or street to take when you’re running late at 8 A.M. (or when you’re trekking back to your house at 3 A.M.!), and you’ll be able to pick up a kilo of tomatoes and a sack of beans for your host mom like a pro. Maybe you’ll introduce your new family to the delicacies of American cooking (I’ve found grilled cheese to be an easy favorite), or perhaps you’ll make a routine of studying at the beach every day. You’ll have a favorite bar and a favorite special at your favorite food kiosk. With familiarity comes adaptation. If a new student enters your study abroad program or a friend from your hometown visits, you’ll be able to guide them around your city as if it were the back of your hand. And as you work out a new routine, you will meet local people and make local friends. Suddenly – just when you thought it would never happen – this strange place will be your home, with people to hang out with and worry about and care for. You’ll come back after a day of classes and your host brother will have a snack waiting for you. In a different way than the euphoria of the first few days, you’ll start to love. You’ll love your morning commute and the noises outside your window at night, you’ll love your new language, you’ll love your new friends and family, and you’ll start to feel less out of place. Homesickness will come, but it will go. You’ll learn so much through your daily interactions and observations that it would be unbelievable if you weren’t living it.
- Preparing to go and leaving home . . . again: Heartsickness all over
Eventually, it will be time for you to pack up once more. And sure, you’ll be missing your parents and your dog and your roommate and your sister and your girlfriend – part of you, even a big part of you, will want to head back. But at the same time, most people experience a little bit of panic during their final weeks or days abroad. Saying goodbye to your new family and your new friends might be sadder than you expected it to be. In fact, you may be sort of a mess. How do you spend your last treasured days? How do you bid farewell to a place that you’ve explored and that’s helped you grow, not knowing when you might see it again? The finality of it all can seem like too much. Don’t focus on a grandiose sense of wrapping up – just enjoy. Make sure that you invest yourself into every second. Sometimes, booking the return flight alongside someone else in your program can make the departure easier (pulling away alone in a cab or a bus is never a good feeling). In any case, make sure you get Facebook profiles, emails, and phone numbers from everyone that has been a part of this mind-bending time in your life, and be sure to invite them to come visit you when/if they make it to your home country!
- Arriving . . . again: Wait, what?
Reverse culture shock is a very real thing (it actually deserves its own post). I remember my first experience with reverse culture shock: getting off a plane in Miami and being so overwhelmed that I had to sit down. After the pure, unadulterated joy of seeing your loved ones for the first time in months or more, you might need some time to adjust back to what was once your “normal.” Things that were simple staples of life before you packed up and shipped out no longer make sense (i.e. Wal-Mart, student loans, big cars, throwing away large amounts of food, fraternity and sorority parties). It’s okay to sit back for a minute as you work on becoming re-acclimated; reverse culture shock can be just as bad, if not worse, than the initial culture shock you faced when you first left the country – even if its just because you’re not expecting it. You might start to compare everything with the place you just left, and people (even people who love you) may get tired of it. That’s why it’s good to have a solid group of friends who have also lived abroad so you can get together and recall your experiences for hours. Homesickness for your “other” home will continue to crop up at the weirdest times over the years. Make sure you stay in contact with the people that shaped your study abroad experience and don’t lose the precious perspective it has given you on yourself, your life, and your world.
In sum, breaking down after you try to buy lunch in Thailand or feeling like you’ve discovered the meaning of life while watching a sunset in the Andes are both completely normal. Study abroad is a time of humbling vulnerability, empowering independence, and personal transparency. It is demanding of your mind, your body, and your spirit, and it reworks you in a way that endures long after you’ve boarded your return flight. Being upfront with yourself about some of the emotional highs and lows you can expect to face when you move out of the country can save you unnecessary panic, and allow you to grow profoundly throughout your experience while simultaneously enjoying it more. Stay flexible, stay bold, stay curious – but most of all, be open to the adventure that’s about to unfurl in your life.
Have you ever studied abroad? If so, did you experience any of the steps on this emotional roller coaster? Do you have any advice for someone studying abroad for the first time?
If you haven’t lived abroad before, are there any steps on this roller coaster that worry you? Do you think knowing about them ahead of time will help you when you make your first big journey?