Emotional Preparation For Studying Abroad

For many university students, a highlight of the college years is the chance to live abroad for a semester – or even a year – and experience life and school in a completely new culture, and often, a new language.  Some students carefully plan their studies around being able to manage a semester abroad, knowing that it’s something they’ve always wanted to do.  Others may have less conviction, but they decide it’s an adventure and risk worth taking.  Regardless of how they made the decision, once students show up in their host country, they’re all in the same boat.  But, how those students will fare in the months ahead of them can depend in large part on how prepared they were for their experience, many aspects of which can come as a shock.

In my practice I see a wide range of university students, some who are studying in Milan for full degrees and others who are in Milan only for a semester exchange from their “home” university.   In many ways, their presenting issues only confirm what seems to be an international reality in the world of mental health: that more people than ever – especially teen-agers and young adults – are suffering from mild to severe anxiety.  Even students without pre-existing conditions – including those with experience in international moves with their families – are prone to experience unusually high levels of stress and anxiety when finding themselves thousands of miles from home, going it alone in foreign territory for the first time.

While students expect excitement, adventure and newness when going abroad, what is often overlooked is just how hard it can be to fill the time.  Most study abroad programs factor in a lot of down time for culture, travel and experiences outside of classroom and study time.  And most students arrive in their host country not knowing anyone else in their program.  Unlike at their home universities, the pool from which to make friends is extremely small.  For some, friendships are made easily, quickly eliminating the issue of, “Who will I eat meals with? Who will I explore with?  Who will I take all my great trips with?”  For others, friendships within the small program group can be harder to forge.  This often creates anxiety about the possibility of too much time alone in a new country.  And although many students would be eager to meet students outside their program, communicating in a foreign language they barely speak means the possibility of friendships with locals becomes even more of a challenge.

Returning to the great expectations students have before going abroad, I often hear how much pressure students put on themselves to not only maximize, but to love, every moment of the experience.   This is especially true for students who have worked and planned for a long time to make it happen.  They feel guilty and stressed over not loving every minute the way they expected and hoped to.  They hesitate to tell friends and family back home that they’re having a hard time, that in some ways, they just want to be back home.  They knew it would be hard, but not this hard. 

Being prepared for the emotional hurdles of studying abroad doesn’t mean it’s possible to entirely avoid them, but it can reduce their negative impact.  So before the adventure actually begins, here are some tips:

  • Talk with former program participants to hear about their experiences and ask questions.
  • Request as much information as possible from the program coordinator about scheduled events, class schedules and unscheduled/free time.
  • Ask yourself, how comfortable are you doing things alone?  Do you need constant companionship or can you fairly happily spend a day – or two – on your own?
  • What’s your biggest fear about being abroad?  How will you plan for it?
  • If you already struggle with anxiety and suffer from panic attacks, are you prepared? If you’re on medication, will you have a full supply for the semester?  Will you be able to call friends and family regularly, keeping in mind the time difference? Do you know if local professional help is available through the program?
  • Remember that much of what makes it great in the long run, feels hard in the doing!

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