By Alisa Tank
If you’ve ever had the thought, “I regret studying abroad,” don’t feel bad about it. Even if you talked non-stop about your trip before you left and arrived in your host country ready to take on the world, sometimes you can still have a bad study abroad experience. Luckily, most terrible study abroad experiences are 100% fixable, and a bad month or two doesn’t have to ruin everything.
You’re not alone. Even the well-intentioned explorers and fervent study abroad advocates can have a bad study abroad experience. What’s key is figuring out how to turn the negatives into learning experiences. By getting through the tough parts of studying abroad, you’ll come out a more resilient, stronger, and capable person. While it may sound hopeless when you’re in the depths of serious culture shock, give some of these tips a try. What do you have to lose?
Is studying abroad hard?
Heck yes it is! But in a really, really good way—kind of like the effort/reward of getting your driver’s license. Studying abroad will probably be the one of the hardest things you’ll do in your life, but that’s no reason to call it quits. While every student won’t struggle with the same issues, there are many common challenges that you’ll face while studying abroad.
Are you a month into your time abroad and can’t figure out why you suddenly hate every single thing in your host country? Before you start to panic, go back into your email and dig out the message from your program director about culture shock. Does that squiggly curve look familiar?
Culture shock is a phenomenon that affects nearly every student who studies abroad, and it can easily sneak up on even the most experienced travelers. Luckily, it’s also something that will eventually go away, leaving you to enjoy the rest of your time abroad in a more emotionally-balanced fashion.
Culture shock aside, studying abroad offers other challenges, too. Students who are living in a country where they don’t speak the language may feel isolated or be embarrassed when trying to communicate with locals. Having to create a new routine and figure things out in a new environment can be stressful, especially when the local culture is quite different from the one you’re used to. Even having to make new friends can be difficult, especially when all your friends back home are just an iMessage or tweet away.
But before you start trying to decide if you should even study abroad or not, remember that these challenges are all surmountable. Is studying abroad hard? Absolutely. But what you’ll gain from the experience is totally worth all the discomfort, loneliness, and (possibly) tears. When you’re laughing so hard your belly aches with a new friend in a new language, in a cafe where you’ve become a regular, you’ll understand why.
“What if I regret studying abroad?”
Before you start throwing yourself a pity party, take a moment to evaluate your thoughts and attitudes about your time abroad. Chances are your bad study abroad experience can be salvaged, and it’s likely that this low point is just a blip in the emotional rollercoaster that is study abroad.
Ask yourself these questions and answer them honestly:
- Do you have unrealistic expectations? You’re not going to become fluent in German in just one month, and making new friends takes some time. Consider looking at your goals through a more realistic lens and figure out what you can actually accomplish during your time abroad.
- Are you constantly making comparisons? Always thinking about things in terms of “better” or “worse” than your home culture gets exhausting quickly. A lot of things are just different, and the sooner you can accept that, the faster you’ll adapt to your host country’s culture.
- Are you actually just experiencing culture shock? While it could be possible that everything really is terrible all the time, it’s also likely you’ve hit a low point after riding high on the honeymoon phase. Practicing positivity and open-mindedness will help you get through the lows of culture shock and open you up to new experiences.
- Have you met with your in-country coordinator about how you’re feeling? Believe it or not, they’re trained in helping you have a good experience, and you’re not the first student who’s come to them feeling down. They’re a great resource, so use them!
After spending some time examining your motives, expectations, and attitude, you’ll probably have a better idea of which areas of your study abroad experience you’d like to improve. Maybe some critical thinking is all you needed to realize that your terrible study abroad experience isn’t so terrible after all!
A few strategies to fix a bad study abroad experience
If the questions above didn’t quite do it for you or if you still need a bit more encouragement, here are some tried and true tips to help you ace your study abroad experience:
1. Adjust your Attitude
When you’re pondering if you should continue your study abroad or not, having a serious conversation with yourself is so important. What are you trying to get out of your study abroad experience? What is stopping you from meeting those goals? Take a moment to remind yourself why you wanted to study abroad in the first place, and figure out a game plan to help you succeed. Sometimes all it takes is a new perspective to turn things around.
2. Change Up Your Environment
Do you feel stuck in a rut? Are you hanging out with the same group of people every day, going to the same places, and doing the same things? It’s easy to stick to the familiar when you’re in a new country. Instead of sticking to the tried and true, take a chance on something new!
This can be as simple as taking a walk in a new part of town, trying that mystery cheese in the local market, or joining a class to learn a new skill or meet locals. There are so many ways to get involved in your host country, and each one will teach you more about the local culture. If you’re having trouble deciding how to change it up, chat with your program leader for suggestions. They’re familiar with the city and can help recommend activities that you may not be obvious to newcomers.
3. Make New Friends
“But I already have friends!” you’re thinking. While this may be true, think about who you’re spending your time with and consider if they’re the best use of your time while abroad. A semester might feel like eternity when you arrive, but it will go by faster than you can imagine. Make the most of every day by surrounding yourself with positive people who encourage learning and exploration.
Making local friends is much easier said than done, especially in a new country where you’re still figuring out how to conjugate the future tense. But don’t let that deter you from trying! Your study abroad friends may be a blast, but connecting with locals is a huge part of the study abroad experience. No only will they deepen your understanding of your host country, you’ll also have an opportunity to practice the host language and likely learn some sweet slang in the process.
4. Take Care of Yourself
Being out of your element can be unnerving, which makes it even more important that you take time for self-carewhile abroad. Think about things you did back home to take care of yourself and figure out how you can translate them to your new environment. If you ate a well-balanced diet back home but have been indulging in too many croissants abroad, try adding some veggies to your meals. If you were a regular exerciser but find it difficult to make time for it abroad, find creative ways you can get your blood pumping.
In addition to keeping your body healthy, your mental health is also important, so don’t neglect it! Being in a new country is awesome but can also be a big source of stress, so recognizing that and knowing how to manage it is key to a successful experience. And also, it might not hurt to lay off the booze just a bit, too.
5. Cool it on Social Media
You’re probably thinking, “But how am I supposed to let the world know how awesome study abroad is if I can’t Instagram it?” While spreading the travel stoke is a totally valid concern, stepping back from your screen can also improve your time abroad. Think about it: how are you supposed to engage in the local culture or spend quality time with your host family if you’re constantly checking your Facebook feed instead?
Another reason to step away from the internet might not be so obvious: homesickness. If you’re already struggling in your host country, constantly getting updates on your friends’ lives back home will most definitely make you feel worse. Instead of making the most of your time abroad, you’ll end up wishing you were back home. FOMO is real, and the more you engage, the more it’ll affect your time abroad.
What if it really is a very, very terrible study abroad experience?
Whether it’s due to a bad host family or school situation, health problems, or something else, in some instances a bad study abroad experience just can’t be salvaged. While going home is always an option, make sure you talk to your program provider before making the decision to end your program early. In many cases, you probably have more options than you think, and sometimes a few small changes are all it takes to transform your time abroad into something really great.
Again, keep in mind the stages of culture shock as you move through your time abroad. It can’t be overstated enough that nearly all students will have an “I regret studying abroad and everything about this place sucks” phase. Keep in mind this is totally normal and soon enough you’ll be having the time of your life!
Check your expectations. See where you can make changes and suggest improvements by communicating your needs/preferences. If you’re still unsatisfied, then and only then should you consider opting out.
To continue on study abroad or not?
Before you throw in the towel and head back home, you owe it to yourself to do everything you can to improve your situation. It was a lot of work to prepare for your time abroad, and you’ve already achieved a lot just by getting this far! Is studying abroad hard? Yep, it’s tough. But it’s also one of the most rewarding things you can do.
Once you’ve made it through the hard stuff and finished your program, don’t forget to let others know that it’s all worth it! Leave a review and share your experience with prospective study abroad students. Reading honest and realistic portrayals of study abroad experiences is a great way to prepare for the adventure of a lifetime, and as you know, some encouragement can make all the difference!