Studying abroad can be like a roller coaster ride – some days are the best of your life and other days can feel like some of the worst. Your senses are heightened, and it can be a lot more to take in when you are so far from home. But what do these “ups and downs” look like? Well, it would be a lie to say that there is an exact formula. Each and every person has a different experience. There is, however, a common path that most top universities identify for students who are studying abroad – and I’m going to highlight those here. This should give you a better idea of what to expect. I’ll also tell you what this roller coaster ride was like for me – I had some pretty high highs, and some pretty low lows. But don’t let this scare you off – if anything, it should make you even more excited for this incredible journey to come!
Phase 1: The Honeymoon Stage
This is often a term referenced for the beginning part of a marriage, when everything is fun and exciting and new, and there are seemingly no flaws in sight. At first, the excitement of being in a new place will take over, and most people want to explore everything and take in the culture. There are popular landmarks to visit, sightseeing tours to take, and amazing new foods to try. It’s an incredible time to take in all of the fun!
Phase 2: Cultural Tension and Confusion
There will be a moment of “Oh lord, what have I gotten myself into?” on the trip. After awhile, the newness of a culture may start to lose it’s perfect glow, and you will begin to see the flaws of your host country. This is inevitable, if you are paying attention. No country is perfect. There are injustices, poverty, stereotypes, and even violence. This is part of the learning process. The longer that you stay in a country, the more deeply you will see it past the surface. And you won’t always like what you find. A lot of people during this stage long for the comforts of home and the people they know. It is important to have some people you can turn to throughout your abroad journey – whether it be an advisor, a roommate, a professor, or a friend you make along the way. As great as it is to catch up with family and friends from home (and good news – with FaceTime this is easier than ever!), it’s important to have someone with you who understands your situation and is physically there with you if you need it.
Phase 3: Loneliness
There are a few reasons you might start to feel lonely while studying abroad. The first, and most obvious reason, is that you will be far from home and you will miss a lot of friends and family. Especially in cases of large time differences (for me it was 13 hours difference in Singapore!) it can be hard to communicate and feel close to loved ones back home. Another, more surprising reason for some loneliness, is that you will go through a personal journey that not a lot of people can understand, because you are the only one living it. This is why it is so important to form strong connections with people overseas. Whenever you want to talk about the hard things you see or the struggles you face, the people back home might not have the same perspective that you have. You may feel alone in your changing mindset.
Phase 4: Homesickness
There is no doubt you will get homesick. Some days you are homesick for your mom, or a best friend. Some days you are homesick for your house and your own bed. Some days, you are simply homesick for a bag of goldfish and a few Oreos. These days come and go. What helped me was to have something with me that reminded me of home – maybe a blanket or even a framed photo of people you care about.
Phase 5: Acceptance
Once you’ve gone through all of the other phases, what happens at the end is a true acceptance of the country you’re now living in. Just as you have accepted your home country, you will learn just about everything from this new country as well, and you can accept it for its flaws and its wonders and its oddities and its fascinations. Living somewhere for several months is so unique. The place will become a part of you, in some way, and from then on it will always feel like home.
So those are the 5 phases most often described. And it’s very true – these are all valid feelings that happen at least once, but more likely multiple times, throughout the process. But this is a very rigid outline, and for many (myself included) it was a slightly different story.
Now, here’s what actually happened to me while studying abroad:
In both Spain and Singapore, my “Oh lord, what have I gotten myself into??” moment happened the first day. In Spain, after following our peppy host mom through the streets, I walked into a tiny bedroom with two cots and a small wooden desk, glancing at my new roommate who I had met about 15 minutes before. There was about one foot between each cot – we were about to get very close. In Singapore, I walked into a boarding school dorm with brown sheets that looked about a hundred years old, a shower with no basin or curtain, and a hot sticky air typical of Southeast Asia. It smelled of must, and there were hundreds of ants on the floor. Not the most ideal sounding situations, right? But after that initial shock, I had the best time of my life. For me, the honeymoon stage lasted pretty much the entire time, with all of the other phases sprinkled in. I did have days where I felt lonely, I did have days when I felt lost, and there were definitely a lot of times I missed home. But for all of those days, there were ten times as many amazing days.
As you prepare to study abroad, don’t hope that these phases won’t happen to you. They will. It just means that you’re going through the process, and the honeymoon phases and acceptance phases can come back, loop around, continue on and swallow you up until you don’t think you could ever be as happy as you are in that place.