The Remarkable Benefits of Study Abroad Series: Part III
Let’s spend a minute or two talking about challenges since we all have them. Perhaps you’re facing one right now or you will be soon.
As a person of great faith, I believe that challenges are not roadblocks or made to make us angry, but are simply ‘tests’ put in place by a higher power to teach lessons, make us stronger, and help navigate us from situations that may harm us. Also, as humans in a culture that can be consumed with ‘all-knowing’ thoughts, these hurdles usher in some much-needed humility.
The other important part to remember is that challenges mean different things to different people.
For example, I’m a highly analytical person. I’m a writer, a creator, and a marketer, it’s my craft. I could do it all day even if I wasn’t getting paid for it. It feeds my soul to work magic on the page.
But, the minute you ask me to do anything with numbers, I freeze up. I’m the first to admit it, I’m horrible at (non-basic) math. I made it through high school and college-level math classes on a wing and a prayer (and with a couple of pretty awesome tutors!).
But pressing through that challenge made me better. And also made me continue to dislike math (:::smiles::::).
I also faced many challenges during my six years of study abroad from adapting to two different new cultures, trying to learn a new academic curve, and my first experience apartment hunting in a major city as a foreigner.
Here are a few of the challenges I had to work to overcome that may also impact you during your semester away:
By the time I studied abroad in 2007, I should have been a veteran at homesickness. I was already a seasoned and well-heeled traveler, having by then, attended college in two different states far across the country and completed internships in three different other states. It should have been easy – but it wasn’t.
After the initial excitement of being in London wore off, I found myself deeply homesick, not necessarily for my “home” home, but for America itself. On the day-to-day, I started to notice differences between the cultures much more closely and it took me a while for me to be okay with those.
My main advice would be to embrace it and see how you can turn it into something positive. During those first few weeks, I would call home frequently. I covered my living space in friendly reminders of home, and I tried to stay in touch with my campus community as much as possible. As the weeks went on and I began to get comfortable, the feelings of angst disappeared, but I had to feel them and be okay with it in the end.
Homesickness is ranked as one of the top reasons students suffer or feel that their study abroad experience was not as worth it as they would have imagined. I was able to stay consistent and persevere, but I completely understand this claim.
Adjusting to a New Academic System
A second challenge that is likely to matter to you is a difference in the structure, protocol, grading, and expectations for the academic system in your host country. This could be anything from the way that classes are conducted, how you’ll interact with instructors, and resetting your concept of studying for success.
This takes a bit of time. Be patient and follow directions (so important!) and you’ll acclimate easily. For a fun story about my experience receiving a grade in London that confused me deeply, click here to read this blog post.
Reshaping Your Taste Buds
One radical shift you’ll notice during study abroad is the way your food palate changes. No matter where you end up spending time abroad, it is likely to take time to adapt to local cuisine and the concept of what local people consider to be “food”.
Famously, many people who travel to the UK (but in particular, Americans) have gripes with traditional English Food. I’m fairly neutral on that point.
Let’s remember there are certain parts of the world where ‘raw’ food is considered standard, and of course in the US, many exchange students are often put off by the sheer volume of processed foods that are accessible here and why there’s so much added sugar and sodium in many of our foods.
I recommend finding a balance. You’ll want the experience of connecting with the culture through food, so go out to restaurants and sample when you can, but also make a plan to prepare a few ‘feels good, tastes good’ meals every week to keep you going and add some familiarity into your diet.
Learning a New Language
Similar to math, for me, the struggle is REAL with this one. I’ve always admired my contemporaries who can easily learn 2-3 languages and make it sound so flawless.
I’ve tried learning Spanish, French, and Italian. The only other languages I can speak besides American English are British English (should be classified as its own language) and snark (Ha!).
I do think for most study abroad students, there is a bit of challenge in not just getting started with a new language, but also finding a way to implement it into daily conversation and situations when dealing with locals.
When I lived in Italy, I started slowly by trying to order a coffee or pastry in Italian and then allowing the person behind the counter to correct me (Pro Tip: In Europe, locals have no problem doing that when you butcher their languages, it’s a very quick insert actually) and then attempting again, until I got it right.
All I can say is, just have fun with it. That’s what it’s all about.
Connecting and Making New Friends
I think this is probably more challenging for students on organized independent and self-appointed study abroad pathways than for those who study using one of their school’s programs. Even the most outgoing student may still find it challenging to suddenly have to connect with strangers they’ve never met, especially if they are from a different culture.
For me, it was all about focusing on getting out of my comfort zone, especially as an introvert. During orientation, I made eye contact with everyone, and when someone seemed as if they wanted to interact, I would go up to them and start chatting. Soon enough, other people see you talking and they want to hear what you’re saying so they join in and everyone feels more comfortable talking to each other.
Just try to remember, everyone is feeling a bit nervous, even if they are not saying it. Relax, breathe, and focus on the beauty of what you’ll get from connecting.
Join the LiveStudyLearn Abroad Association and connect with more people!
What are some of the different challenges that you anticipate experiencing during your semester abroad? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts!
Until next time,
Known as The Study Abroad Specialist, Kimber Grayson is a serial-study abroader turned International Education coach and expert. Since 2014, she has helped 100+ students navigate their semester away journey from the coastal areas of Spain to China and every place in between. In 2018, she launched The LiveStudyLearn™ Abroad Association, a one-of-a-kind online membership platform for study abroad students worldwide.
She holds two Master's degrees from two well-respected London-based universities and has experience working in the US, UK & and Italy.
In her spare time (what's that again?), she enjoys leisure travel city breaks, any snow-based activity, skeet shooting, and attempting to learn new languages.