What Nobody Tells You Before Studying Abroad

before studying abroad

Remember your first date? Remember those butterflies you had before your crush picked you up for dinner and a movie? Your head was flooded with thoughts like, “what if we have nothing to talk about,” or “should I even go?” You tried your best to seem cool, calm, and collected when, in reality, your heart was doing backflips. Your hands were sweaty – you were afraid of the unknown.

Five months ago, I felt the same way as I boarded my flight to New Zealand – my home for the next five months. I was clenching my passport so hard that the pages began to crinkle.  Holding it close to my chest, I could feel my heart beating at twice its normal speed while every butterfly in my stomach was screaming, “It’s not too late, you can still get off the plane!” Thank goodness I didn’t because this was the first day of the greatest adventure of my life.

As an undergraduate student and self-proclaimed travel bug, I capitalized on the opportunity to study abroad because after three years of being in one place, it’s easy to get stuck in a routine and settle into a familiar group of friends. But my heart was itching for something new, and the mountain climber in me was begging to come out and play. I knew that going to New Zealand would throw me out of my comfort zone (8.846 miles out of my comfort zone, to be exact) and allow me to explore my personal strengths while also exploring one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

After being home for about a month, I have been asked countless times, “so, how was New Zealand?!” People look a little shocked when I say that it was one of the most challenging experiences of my life. It’s not the answer that people expect, and I can see why. After all, my Instagrams and Facebook posts always showcased a happy traveler on top of a mountain, or a huge group of friends and I sharing a drink – it was a total highlight reel.

But let’s talk about the REAL reel for a second. These are a few things that no one tells you before you go abroad:

You will feel alone.

One of the main reasons I chose to move to New Zealand was because I didn’t know a soul there. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and stretch my social boundaries, and boy, did I get my wish! I made some AMAZING relationships, and there were always people around that were up for a trip to the mountains or for drinks in town. I met people who challenged me mentally and physically, people from almost every country in the world, and people that made me laugh until my stomach hurt. I tried to constantly surround myself with these types of people, but there were some days where I felt like I was living on a deserted island.

Some days, I could feel every single mile that was between myself and my friends and family. It was so important on days like these to be particularly mindful and intentional in surrounding myself with positive people. This meant making the extra effort to get lunch with a friend or take a day trip to the beach with some roommates. When I was completely present in my community, I could focus on creating new relationships instead of focusing on the old ones I was missing.

…I have been asked countless times, ‘so, how was New Zealand?!’ People look a little shocked when I say that it was one of the most challenging experiences of my life.

Vulnerability fosters community.

Just because you’re in an exciting new place doesn’t mean that all of your struggles and problems just disappear. Even though I was surrounded by supportive people and beautiful mountains, I still dealt with the same anxiety that haunted me at home. I tried my best to keep busy with excursions and classwork (okay, mostly excursions), but some days, I felt as though I had this HUGE weight on my chest.

Sure, these struggles can feel isolating. However, they can also be the building blocks of a beautiful community if we allow them to be. Although it can be terrifying to open up to new people in a new place, I found that it doesn’t matter where you are; people long for connection and long for authenticity. It turns out, the things that we think will scare people away will actually draw people in and foster a community of strength and love.

study abroad paris

Adventure is found in the little things.

When you think “adventure,” what do you think of? Jumping out of a plane with a parachute on your back? White water kayaking down a class 5 rapid?  Climbing Mount Everest? It seems that if you’re not screaming a the top of your lungs or trembling in adrenaline, you’re not being adventurous. This is simply not the case.

The smallest events can quickly turn into adventures when you’re in a new city. For me, one of my favorite adventures was getting lost on a run and ending up at a nearby beach where I took a swim and grabbed a coffee. I sure didn’t intend for my light weekend jog to take me to a new place, but this turned out to be one of my favorite solo adventures!

I tried to go on an “adventure” every single day, whether this meant walking down a new street on my way home, talking to someone new in class, or going to a local festival.  It didn’t have to be big or life threatening; it just had to be new, stimulating, and maybe even a little bit challenging. Not only did these daily adventures allow me to familiarize myself with my city, but they helped me avoid getting stuck in a mundane daily routine.

It turns out, the things that we think will scare people away will actually draw people in and foster a community of strength and love.

Give it 100%.

Just like with anything, living abroad requires effort and intentionality! Adventure doesn’t come from sitting in bed or the library. It takes vulnerability to open up to new people. It takes getting out of your comfort zone and saying ‘yes’ to (almost) every opportunity that presents itself. For example, I never would have said yes to white water kayaking if I wasn’t in New Zealand because water absolutely terrifies me – especially when it involves class 3 rapids and I am trapped in a kayak.  Yet, I loved it, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

I promise that whatever you put into your experience, you will get 100 times more out of it.  If you wake up and say ’yes’ to what the day holds, you will find yourself creating unexpected relationships, learning about cultures, and finding answers to questions that you didn’t even know to ask.

studying abroad school

It’s going to FLY by.

I remember packing my bags the night before my flight thinking, “wow, five months is a long time to be away from home.” But those five months felt like a flash. Before I knew it, I was boarding my flight back to California with my crinkled passport in hand.

Making the decision to live abroad is one of the most intimidating decisions that you will ever make, but it is also one of the most beautiful and life-changing things you can do for yourself.  And that’s just it – you’re doing it for YOURSELF, not for the Instagrams or the Snapchat stories.  If the opportunity presents itself, don’t think twice.  It’s scary, but the only way we can grow is to lean into that fear and face it head on.

Are you about to study abroad? Where? Have you recently returned from studying abroad? What did you learn?

Images via Marlena Steiner

Caila is a student at Elon University where she is studying to become a Registered Dietician. She is passionate about the environment and healthy lifestyles, which is why she has started a few community gardens in North Carolina. When she's not in the garden, though, she's probably running, hiking, or cooking for her friends.

6 COMMENTS
  • Kara September 26, 2016

    I studied abroad in London a few years ago when I was in college, and to this day it is still one of the greatest experiences of my life. Even though I had friends going with me, I felt like we all got to know each other more by exploring new places together. I used to also explore by myself and I’m so glad that I did! Sometimes, no one wants to join you on your walk to a certain place, but if you want to see it, then you need to do so even if it’s by yourself!

  • Devan September 10, 2016

    This article is so well written. The daily adventure bit is spot on – you can’t spend your whole life waiting for some amazing adventure, since every day has the opportunity to hold one.

  • Victoria September 9, 2016

    What an amazing article! Thank you Caila for sharing your experiences and these valuable tips. I have been thinking about studying abroad with my friend but she’s considered backing out due to a new route her life’s taken. I was going to call off the plans completely but now I’m definitely going to reconsider. 🙂

  • Brooke September 3, 2016

    I leave in 15 days to England for three months. While my best friends are going with me, this is so incredibly helpful! Thank you.

  • Erin September 2, 2016

    Studying abroad is definitely glorified. Thank you for writing this and pointing out the “not talked about” side of it. I had an incredibly bad experience studying abroad in Rome and ended up coming home. I’ve been struggling with the feeling that I failed because I didn’t love something that everyone else seems to think is essential to a college experience. There are many things I wish I had known and thought about before boarding that plane.

  • Marie September 2, 2016

    Great post! I studied in Germany for one year and for the first semester, I totally felt the challenge, isolation and difficulties that you described. The second half was so much better though, probably because I started to feel less isolated among the new friends I’d had a chance to make during the first bit. I’d do it again in a heartbeat!!

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