The following is a guest post from one of my new blogger friends, Sarah Ashley.
One of the most profound experiences of my 20’s was studying abroad during college. Not only was it the biggest leap of faith I’ve ever taken, but it was the singular experience that kickstarted my desire to pursue traveling for a living. Pretty much any student who has studied abroad will tell you that you absolutely must do it and that you’ll never be the same again, myself included. If you stay curious, travel will never stop inspiring you; the world is such a beautiful place. Get ready to be on fire, to be surprised, to be vulnerable…because living abroad is not for the meek. My biggest advice? If you’re considering the leap, get ready to give up most of your comforts, your judgements about the world and what you think you know about yourself. Prepare to experience the best, and the worst parts of your personality…all in a very short timespan.
When I traveled abroad to Spain with International Studies Abroad, ISA for short, I was a little baby traveler. I had never traveled internationally and had very little experience traveling solo. And while I’ll spend my days proclaiming love for the study abroad experience, I also remember it as a time filled with personal, and emotional, challenges. Living in a culture different from my own constantly tested me, surprised me, and pushed me to live beyond my limits. Transitioning from the fast-paced lifestyle of Southern California to the relaxed attitude of Spain was like being ripped from everything I knew to be true. Punctuality in Spain? Not a thing. The prevalence of English? Astonishingly small.
In fact, there are quite a few things I wish I had known before deciding to live in another country. Don’t let yourself be shocked by some of these common challenges. Here are 5 things you should know before studying abroad and a few solutions I hope you’ll find useful.
Unusual food cravings
Before traveling, when I thought about being somewhere foreign, I would get really excited about the opportunity to try the local cuisine. And while expanding my foodie experiences wherever I go is still a top priority, I’ve grown accustomed to the fact that this may not always happen. Sometimes, searching out delicious, new food is exhausting. When I was living in Madrid, I struggled to find my groove. I am ashamed to admit it, because Spain has amazing delicacies, but I had a hard time adjusting to the late meal schedules, the tiny breakfasts, or the overwhelming presence of ham. Even though I allowed myself to open up and try new things, it was interesting to have all sorts of unexpected food cravings. It was weird to pass on paella for boring food, like peanut butter and plain oatmeal. When I grew tired of fighting the cravings, I went to McDonald’s. I never ate like that at home, but abroad, it just made sense. I missed my country and this was the only way I felt like I could connect.
The solution: Spend some time locating a few grocery stores and restaurants you can count on. It’s ok to not eat out often, just as it’s ok to eat the same meal twice. If you were on a short vacation, it would seem weird to stay in and cook some pasta, but remember, you’re living abroad. Time to change your perspective. Routine and consistency will help. If you’re in a homestay, be vocal about what you like and don’t like and if your host is ok with it, buy some of your own groceries or go shopping together for food you can get on board with it. You should put effort into trying new things, but you shouldn’t live in discomfort if it’s just not working out.
Frequent urges to contact family and friends
I’ll preface by saying, I have always been a very independant person. I barely saw my parents during college, despite living with them. So, when I went abroad, I was adamant about not being one of those kids to get homesick; I didn’t even get emotional at the airport. Even though I was convinced it wouldn’t happen to me, I fell victim to the curse. My first few days in Spain, I couldn’t connect to WiFi, had a total breakdown, and I realized just how much I needed my family. Throughout my time there, I wanted to share all my biggest struggles and happiest moments with the people I loved the most. It was an unusual feeling for me, but eventually we settled on a once or twice a week Skype session.
The solution: Even if you don’t anticipate homesickness, be aware that it might happen when you least expect it. It will probably also happen the first time you experience something really hard, like getting sick or missing your plane. Before you leave, make a plan with your family for calls home and stick to a schedule, like once a week. That way, you have something to look forward to and you’ll have lots to tell them when you talk. I also recommend keeping a blog so you can write about your experiences, not only for yourself, but to keep your friends and family informed. And definitely, definitely, stay off social media as much as possible. Don’t let yourself get sucked in by FOMO (fear of missing out) on events back home. Remember, if you’re traveling, the world will be continuing on without you, so get used to the feeling of being left out and go on with your day.
I am a big proponent of saying yes while traveling, getting out there and taking chances on big experiences. I figured if I was somewhere new, I could be someone new and do things I’d never try at home. What I didn’t see coming was the overload of opportunities to participate in and how much I would have to say no to. There was always something to do and I simply couldn’t keep up the pace. I was roaming the city by day, taking classes in the afternoon, doing homework in the evening and going out at night with other students and locals. I toured museums, went out to dinner, explored new neighborhoods and partied it up. I figured I could have a break when I got home, but I was constantly exhausted from my monday-friday schedule and hurried weekend trips to other countries.
The solution: Expect everything about living abroad to be harder. You will get lost a lot. You will get misunderstood a lot. Normal tasks like shopping for shampoo could be huge excursions. When everything is an adventure, you need to give yourself a break every once in awhile. The constant excitement can be over-stimulating. It’s perfectly normal to hide in your room watching movies or reading a book. Most of all, be kind to yourself. If you prioritize balancing your time well, you can see everything you came to see and avoid the travel burnout.
Difficulty belonging and making friends
At the risk of sounding full of myself, I’ve never had trouble making friends or getting along with people before studying abroad. What I wasn’t prepared for was how difficult it would be to find my “group”. It was uncomfortable meeting a whole bunch of strangers at once and trying to connect. Relationships move very fast abroad. Within days, I was planning weekend trips with relative strangers and learning how to trust, a lot. Eventually, I found a select few people to spend most of my time with and even made friends with some locals. What I didn’t take into account was how strange it would be having a roommate for the first time, and it turned out I was not the greatest at sharing. Luckily, she was a very forgiving friend.
The solution: You might not find your group right away, but be sure to be kind, hang out with everybody and say yes to any invitation you get. Everyone is in the same place, just trying to find friends. Stay positive and learn to enjoy your own company. Being alone can actually teach you a lot, so don’t be scared of flying solo. Also, if you’re up for the language and cultural barriers, making connections with locals is a surefire way to experience the in’s and out’s of your new city, fast.
Living without and letting go
Before I started traveling, I never quite understood how attached I was to my stuff. I nearly panicked when packing for Spain when I didn’t have space for all of my favorite beauty products and so many pairs of shoes I had wanted to bring. But once I got there, I realized I didn’t need that much to be happy and I never ended up missing what I didn’t pack. I became less concentrated on appearances and wearing the same outfit a lot didn’t bother me. When I was packing to come home, I had no problem leaving some clothes behind to make room for souvenirs. I had grown!
The solution: We all want to feel cozy and safe, but the whole point of traveling is to leave your old ways behind so you can experience more of the world. There’s no easy way about it, you just have to do without and see how well you do. Packing for an extended trip isn’t as hard as you think. Stick to comfy shoes, simple color palettes and basic items that have multiple uses. And remember, if you really need something you didn’t bring, chances are you’ll be able find what you need wherever you’re going.
Studying abroad is a true adventure. It is not meant to be a comfortable experience. Like I said before, it’s not for the meek. Traveling is for the bold…it’s for the curious. It’s filled with challenges, both welcome and unwelcome and is isn’t like a weekend trip. Whatever program and country you choose, do your best to prepare for culture shock, but know that it’s probably going to happen no matter what. It’s natural to experience difficulties living in a strange country, but how you overcome those obstacles is the whole point of traveling. If you want to see the world, you’ve got to take on whatever it throws at you. Don’t put your dreams off any longer, just go.
Sarah Ashley is the blogger behind Salted Adventures, living in Southern California. She created Salted Adventures as a place to celebrate life filled with boldness, faith & freedom. You can see more of Sarah Ashley on her blog, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.