Ups and downs of studying abroad
Happy. Sad. Excited. Homesick. Independent. Lonely. Studying abroad comes with a wide range of emotions. When you take that first step and sign up for a program, you are no doubt thrilled for the opportunity to live in another country. And you should be! A semester abroad will probably be one of the best experiences of your life. But on a smaller scale, each day will come with different emotions. For me, the study abroad experience was broken down into stages:
- Preparing to go: In the month or so leading up to my departure, the fact that I was going to be studying in London didn’t even feel real. I had theories and ideas floating around in my mind about what things would be like – but it all felt so distant. And it was! London was all the way across the Atlantic Ocean! I made packing lists and check lists weeks in advance, but in my typical style, the last few days were very stressful, with lots of last minute errands and a few breakdowns.
- Leaving Home: The idea of studying abroad is very cool. The reality of leaving home is pretty scary. At least, I thought so. I made my whole family drive me to the airport. I gave them about a million hugs each. But ultimately, I had to say goodbye and board the plane by myself. When I found my seat, I pulled out my teddy bear (yes, I was a college student bringing a teddy bear abroad). Even as a veteran flier, I was nervous when the plane took off.
- Arriving: Landing was much more rewarding than taking off. Just knowing I had made it abroad was exhilarating! I went through customs no problem, grabbed my luggage, and called the car service that was going to take me into the city (it’s a great idea to arrange this before leaving home… door to door service takes a lot of stress out of the picture when you don’t know your way around). The drive in was so beautiful that I couldn’t help but smile the whole way. My new apartment downtown was breathtaking (I couldn’t afford to live there again in a million years), but meeting my roommates was a little awkward. We were all so jet lagged that the first day was actually a bit of a disappointment. We didn’t go anywhere except the convenience store down the street. Luckily, after a good night sleep, we were ready for orientation on day two.
- First Week: To me, the first week was probably the most exciting. At orientation, I met other people on my program to start exploring the city with. I felt safer, more awake, and ready to go! Because I was on a program with other students from my university, making new friends was easier than I thought it would be. Classes started a few days in, and that added some structure to my day, which was also comforting. For a lot of people, the first signs of homesickness started to show during this time… but I was running too hard to look back.
- Relapse: After about a month, I started to relapse. The initial excitement of being in a new country had worn off, and I missed my friends and family back home. I guess you can call it homesickness. It stopped me from enjoying one of the best cities on earth, and I didn’t know what to do. Lucky for me, two of my best friends from home were studying abroad in Madrid. I bought a last minute plane ticket to visit them for the weekend. It was exactly what I needed - but beware if you try to find a temporary fix like this; leaving my friends to go back to London alone was devastating. I spent $20 just to call my dad from the Madrid airport and cry. Who cries when you’re traveling between two such amazing countries?! Somebody who is very homesick, that’s who.
- Settled In: It took a couple more weeks of homesickness before I officially settled into my home in London. I found a good group of international students to hang out with, I was doing well in my classes, and I knew how to navigate the local grocery store. I even had a favorite pub. I think what really made the difference for me, though, was having visitors to tour around. In March, my mom came to visit. A week later a friend from home came over for spring break. In April, my dad came on a business trip. And at the end of the semester, one of my best friends finished her semester in Florence and stopped by for a few days. With each visitor, I made the time to explore something new in the city and act like a tourist again. The most amazing thing was realizing what a great tour guide I was! I knew my way around London like the back of my hand. The city had become my home!
- Leaving Home… Again: The problem with feeling at home abroad is that it makes leaving much harder. After four months, I could tell that another wave of homesickness was heading my way, so in a lot of ways I was ready to go… but saying goodbye to London was more sad than happy. I was sort of a mess, I didn’t know what to do with myself or how to spend my last precious days. I found a friend on my program who was taking the same flight back and made sure to get a seat next to her. We shared a cab to the airport (we had too much luggage for the train), and she gave me the kick I needed to say goodbye.
- Arriving… Again: Reverse culture shock can be just as bad, if not worse, than regular culture shock. While the initial excitement of seeing my family and my hometown was amazing (I almost cried when my mom took me to the local Giant foodstore, because the number of choices was overwhelming), I immediately started to feel homesick for the city I left behind. I kept comparing everything London - not just in my head, but out loud - and the people at home tired of it very quickly. I had to seek out other friends who studied abroad as well so we could talk about our experiences for hours on end. It was months before it stopped being the main topic of conversation. And as for being homesick for London… well, it’s three years later and I still miss it!
Looking for more information? Check out our study abroad student guide to learn more.
Rachael has a B.S. in Geography from the University of Maryland and studied abroad in London during the Spring of 2009.