What to Expect and How to Adjust When You’re Studying Abroad

Posted on January 1, 2012


What can I expect from living abroad? What are some tips for helping to smooth out the transition?

Living overseas for a semester impacts each person in unique and unexpected ways. For some, the transition is easy; for others it can be difficult and nerve-wracking. Here’s some advice on how to adjust to your new life abroad and provide useful tips and advice to make the transition as smooth as possible.

By Harmonie Rosenberg

Sitting in a Boeing 747 at 35,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, my mind wandered anxiously, contemplating the study abroad experience that lay ahead of me. I had no idea what to expect, and this made me incredibly nervous. Now, looking back at that moment after a semester of trial and error in Italy, I have come to realize how much I’ve learned about adjusting to life abroad.

Common problems people encounter in their new life abroad can include making new friends, struggling with language barriers, dealing with completely new food, and in general, figuring out all the little details of life, from finding the bathroom to shopping in the grocery store, that can seem so effortless at home.

Here’s my advice to students who are going abroad, which might help you ease into that transition:

  • An open mind is a ready mind. Be prepared to embrace a starkly different culture that will continue to shock you from the first day you arrive til you board the plane for home. Whether traveling to Istanbul and covering your head when entering a mosque, or entering a church in Rome and covering your legs on a hot day, adjusting to life abroad is all about respecting and learning as much as you can from life in a  new country.
  • Expect things to go wrong. Before you step on the plane, prepare yourself mentally for to hit a few roadblocks that will cause you extreme anxiety. Buses run late, train strikes put a fork in your travel plans, budget airlines’ baggage restrictions might throw you into a frenzy 30 minutes before you board your plane, and taxi drivers are just as frustrating in Europe as they are in the States. Being tolerant of things going wrong is probably the most important aspect of travel. And always remember that even when things go wrong, it’s your attitude and resourcefulness that will determine whether you continue to have an amazing trip regardless of what happens along the way.
  • Make a community for yourself. Living far away from friends and family, not to mention the clubs, sports team or other social groups you are part of at home, you may feel as if you’ve lost your sense of community. But there are plenty of opportunities to create a new sense of community in your new home.
  • Develop connections and networks with the other students on your study abroad program. After all, the other students are probably feeling a similar need and similar fears. Don’t be afraid to reach out and make new friends. Travelers frequently say that the people they meet while abroad can become some of the best friends in their lives.
  • Reach out. Your school is host to peers, teachers, student life coordinators and a variety of other people who can help you stay involved and make new connections. sense of community with individuals in the same situation as you.
  • Explore your neighborhood. Get to know your block, your local restaurants, cafes and bars, your local market vendors. Become a regular at a few establishments and befriend the owner
  • Attend religious services and connect with other attendants. Religion is an important aspect of culture, no matter where you go. Even if you aren’t religious or don’t share the beliefs, keep an open mind and explore this area of life abroad. Keep in mind that places of worship are also home to some of the greatest architecture and works of art that a culture may have — so missing them will mean missing something incredible.
  • Exercise. It’s so easy to get lazy and indulge a little too often abroad. Find a local football club to scrimmage with, join a gym, or develop a jogging route that keeps you feeling fit. When you exercise, you feel good, and it’s a great way to relieve some of the tension and stress that can come from being in a new and strange environment.
  • Be a neighbor. Look into community events, clubs, expatriate groups and other resources available in your study abroad city. Speak with your student life coordinator to see how you can get our there and meet lots of people over shared interests and hobbies.
  • Leave some time for yourself. Making friends among fellow study abroaders is inevitable, and probably much easier than you think. Before you know it, you’ll find yourself constantly surrounded by people. While it’s fun to travel in groups, grab lunch with your peers, or explore the city with friends, taking time to be alone is important. This is especially true considering you may be sharing a room with a flatmate. Even the commute to or from class is an opportunity to clear your mind, get off your cell phone and reflect on how fortunate you are to be have this wonderful experience. Look around and soak it in, because it’ll pass by faster than you can imagine.

The food might be unpronounceably delicious and the street signs might just be unpronounceable, but your anticipated adjustments are anything but. Clear and distinct, make this time abroad worth every lesson learned, and get excited to thrive and flourish in the face of alteration.

Do you have any tips for adjusting to life abroad? What were your struggles when you first went abroad? What are you dealing with now? Let us know in the comments section below!

Posted in: LIFE ABROAD