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Shelby's Passport Pages: A Study Abroad Survival Guide

As I sit in a rainy England coffee shop writing this blog, on the cusp of bidding farewell to my study abroad journey, I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, gratitude, and hope. These past few months have been nothing short of transformative, filled with adventures, challenges, and lessons that have reshaped my entire perspective on education, life, and the world at large. As I reflect on my personal study abroad experience, I feel compelled to share some insights and advice for each of you who are either embarking on your own study abroad adventures soon or considering the possibility. 

Embrace Your Journey. Don’t Feel Guilty For It. 

When I received the email confirming my acceptance to study abroad, an unparalleled surge of excitement coursed through me, igniting a feeling of pure joy I had never experienced prior. At the same time, I felt hesitant to be too excited. I’m the first in my family to study abroad. My mom was the first in my family to finish college, but she did it on a shoestring budget while raising three kids, never imagining studying abroad as a mere possibility due to her circumstances. My mom dreams of traveling and has a list of all the places she wants to see with my sisters and me one day. My younger sister has always had a natural pull to experience the world and a hunger for it. So, when I got to England and started settling in, I felt a natural feeling of sadness and guilt. Sadness, because I’d love to share it with them both. Guilt, because I know my mom has sacrificed a lot for me to have a better life than she did. That was a hard feeling to overcome, especially with a time difference that made it difficult to connect with them regularly and left us all feeling more disconnected.

I found myself feeling guilty when I called my family with only good news of all the places I’d seen, the foods I had tried, the people I had met, and the things I got to experience that they may never be granted the opportunity to. There were times when I felt guilty about not feeling sad when we didn’t get to call when I was traveling, or when I was having so much fun I wasn’t ready to return home. Studying abroad has even made me consider the possibility of moving to another country after graduation, another circumstance that was met with initial guilt before acceptance.

The thing I had to realize during my time studying abroad was that my family wasn’t feeling sad or resentful toward me. They were feeling joy that I got to experience this and that they in some way got to experience it through me. It was important for me to remember that my family wants what’s best for me and wants nothing more than to know I am happy, grateful, and fulfilled. I began to feel more comfortable calling home because I appreciated the opportunity to share my experience with people who knew the earlier versions of me, and they appreciated knowing the ways I am growing, stretching, and becoming a better me. If I had to give one piece of advice on this, it’d be that you should try to embrace that growth in you too. The important thing to recognize is that this may not be your circumstance. Some families will be accepting of students studying abroad, some won’t. Regardless of the circumstances and how others feel about your decision to study abroad, I want you to remember that this is your experience. Your life. Your dream. Don’t feel guilty for pursuing your goals and dreams, nobody else will do it for you. 

So if you too get this feeling when studying abroad, don’t be afraid to do what’s best for your needs. Call home, don’t call home. Go for a walk, read a new book, try a new food dish, go to the gym, book a weekend getaway trip to a nearby town, etc. I found that I was always able to manage my needs in the moment with the resources I had been given.

Step Out of Your Comfort Zone

Everything about my decision to study abroad was out of my comfort zone. I decided to go to a country I had never visited before, with nobody else from my home university attending with me. I didn’t know anyone here in England or nearby. I had never been outside of the country alone before. I would be lying if I said this didn’t terrify me upon the decision to do so. However, I had faith that pushing these boundaries would help me develop who I am and gain the independence I was seeking.

As cheesy as it sounds, getting comfortable with being alone is a transformative part of maturing and, in my opinion, solidifying who you are in your 20s. Had I not decided to go abroad, I don’t think I would have grown to be the person I am today. I am now comfortable navigating small and large challenges completely alone, and leaning on loved ones for support when needed. I have seen the impact distance has on relationships, and believe true care for one another will surpass any time zone, flight duration, or distance. I have matured to recognize that relationships are mutual and should fill your cup. It’s okay to feel like one isn’t serving you anymore. It doesn’t mean it didn’t serve you in the past. I’ve realized that the right people will grow and change with you, not hold on to a past hope and expectation of who they want you to continue to pretend to be. All of these personal realizations happened through personal boundary pushes abroad. 

I want to stress how impactful this experience is and will be for you. You will never again be this young and studying abroad. You will never again be in this location for the first time with completely unfamiliar experiences and people around you. It seems daunting, and it is daunting, but push yourself. If you can afford to go on a weekend trip to a nearby country, do it. If there’s a club you are nervous to join, go to the first meeting. If you’re scared to do something you’d never usually do, try it. If it doesn’t serve you, just don’t do it again. 

Here’s an example (although extreme): On my Spring Break trip abroad, I chose to go bungee jumping in Germany. This is not something I would have had the guts to do back home. However, some friends and I were walking down a strip of a small town in Germany and found a guide looking for two more people to join their tour group. The end of the tour ended in bungee jumping. Although this terrified me, I chose to do it. I can now say it is one of the best experiences of my life, and one I will tell stories about for a lifetime. It’s also one I felt no need to advertise, but do simply for self-experience. I did not film it, I did not take photos, and I didn’t even tell anyone back home I had done it (sorry Mom). 

These types of experiences are exactly what I want to challenge you to try. Extreme, not extreme, don’t be afraid to question and push your boundaries. You’re afraid of heights - why? Can you try something safely that challenges this fear a bit? Do it. 

Immerse Yourself Into the Culture
  • Learn about local customs, traditions, phrases, slang, ways of life

  • Engage with locals, not just other study-abroad students

  • Join clubs/organizations

The study abroad experience is unlike anything else. Never again will you be in a place where you can try entirely new foods, experience entirely new places, and do it all as one of the people immersed in it. It’s great to connect with other people from other schools in other states who are also studying abroad, but there is nothing quite like fully enveloping yourself in the culture of the country you are studying in. Because culture is all about people, it’s important to make sure you engage in real conversation, interaction, and relationship with locals in the country you are studying. That is where the real richness of the experience lies. What do the people think, feel, know, and live? This is at the heart of the abroad experience.

Begin with learning about local customs and traditions. Take the time to fully understand the social norms, traditions, and customs of your host country. Whether it’s how you greet somebody, say thank you, the proper way to dine, or the significance of local holidays, immersing yourself in these cultural nuances will not only help you navigate daily life, but also deepen your appreciation for your host culture. 

Familiarize yourself with phrases and slang. Language is a gateway to culture. Even if the country you are visiting primarily speaks English, make an effort to learn common phrases, slang, and expressions that are used by locals. Not only does this allow you to communicate more effectively, but it also endears you to the community and shows your willingness to engage with their day-to-day lifestyle. 

Engage with the locals! While it’s comfortable to stick with fellow study-abroad students, don’t limit yourself to just that circle. Actively seek opportunities to engage with locals and students from your host country. Whether it’s striking up a conversation with someone in a store, participating in community events, or talking to a classmate sitting next to you. Building meaningful connections with locals helps provide you with a more authentic insight into their culture and lifestyle. Almost all of my strongest friendships made abroad are with students from England, not the United States. 

Join clubs and organizations!!! One of the best ways to make friends and integrate into the local community is by joining clubs or organizations that align with your interests (or allow you to develop new ones). For example, I had never played golf prior to coming to Lancaster University here in England, but I joined the golf society and made some amazing friends from it! Whether it’s a sports team, a volunteer group, or a cultural society, getting involved in extracurricular activities will not only help you meet locals with similar passions as you, but also provide you with a stronger sense of belonging and purpose.

Embrace Culture Shock. It’ll Happen at One Point or Another.

When I came abroad, I didn’t expect to experience a lot of culture shock. I came to a country where the primary spoken and written language is English. I came to a university similar in size to my home university back home. However, you will find that in any place, regardless of similarities, you are bound to find differences. 

Culture shock will look different for everyone. My biggest experience with culture shock in my time abroad was actually not in my time when I was studying in England, but during my Easter break visiting my family in Germany. Although these family members have been close to me since I was born and I’ve visited them countless times, I hadn’t had the opportunity to visit alone until this past trip. Regardless of their intention, I found myself feeling extremely uncomfortable and isolated for the duration of my trip. Due to past family circumstances, my grandmother has lived in Germany for my whole life, and my mom, siblings, and I have not had the ability to learn and maintain the use of German. While on past trips I had my siblings and mom to talk to when family members turned to speak German, this trip, I was without them. Although my grandmother speaks English, I felt rude and helpless when she wasn’t around to help me communicate with my other family members. This was my first big recognition, amongst many other experiences, that I was experiencing a form of culture shock.

However, culture shock doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. I think the word often arrives with a negative connotation. There have been times here in England that I have found they have different experiences with medicine, different ways of expressing something, different traditional food dishes, etc, and I’ve actually preferred or enjoyed them. Just because something is different from what you’re used to doesn’t mean it has to be scary. It’s okay if it is, but it doesn’t always have to be. 

My best tip for navigating culture shock (and reverse culture shock when you return back home) is to embrace it. Recognize your feelings. Sit with them. Address your needs. If this means you need to go do something familiar with someone familiar, do it. If this means you need an hour alone to read and journal, do it. Don’t be afraid to advocate for your needs and sit with discomfort, but also alleviate negative emotions with past comforts. 

Stay Organized

The study abroad experience is in great part about experiencing a new place and new people, but it’s important to remember that you are also there to be a student. You still have deadlines and important learning to do in the classroom. Your best preparation is good planning. Schedule your study time, clearly mark your deadlines, and build in the time you need before you get too caught up in the adventure. I recommend you build in your travel and exploration time too.

In addition to planning, surrender to the idea that learning here might look and feel much different than you are used to. The culture drives opinions, perspectives, and political environment – all of which drastically change the space for learning. You might find yourself on the outside of popular opinion more often than you’ve ever experienced, or confused about why people so strongly disagree with your assessments. This is normal and an incredible opportunity for growth. Ask yourself to consider how your experiences may have guided your biases and your possibly linear thinking. Consider how your thinking might differ if you allowed yourself to step into that experience. Consider how you can push yourself to think in new ways, to expand your creativity, and to truly grow during this time both personally and intellectually.

Document Your Experience

Photos are a powerful tool for capturing the essence of your study abroad experience. Whether it’s the beautiful architecture, landscapes, or candid moments with friends, photos allow you to relive and share your experiences with others. Be sure to carry a camera or your phone to capture both the big and grand sights, as well as everyday moments that make your study abroad experience unique. 

Throughout my semester abroad, I’ve also kept a study abroad journal, jotting down my observations, challenges, and moments of joy. I’ve kept any photos, receipts, museum tickets, plane tickets, or other keepsakes to place in the journal. I highly recommend keeping a study abroad journal to fellow students embarking on their own adventures. Not only does it provide a creative outlet for your self-expression, but it also serves as a tangible record of your personal journey - one that you can revisit whenever you crave a glimpse into the transformative experience of studying abroad. 

Whether it’s through photos, journal entries, or a combination of both, documenting your study abroad experience ensures that the memories you create will endure for a lifetime. 

Stay Safe and Healthy

It’s something you’ve likely never considered. Since before you can even remember, your mom, dad, grandparents, and teachers have taught you that in an emergency, you dial 911. You’ve likely never even considered that this is an entirely American experience. While everyone hopes it doesn’t happen and you never need it, you should familiarize yourself with the local emergency numbers and make sure that should something serious happen and you need emergency help, you know what to do. What is your local emergency number? What safety protocols are second nature to the place you now call home?

For most study-abroad travelers, health isn’t a top priority. You’re young and probably overall pretty healthy. It’s rare many students think about a check-up or making sure they know what to do when they get sick. Many people have seen the same doctor most of their life, or are used to knowing where the closest local hospital or urgent care is. If a student gets sick, most just go to the doctor or get the right over-the-counter medicine. But, it’s important to think about your health before you go abroad. If you’re someone who struggles with greater health concerns than most, you’ll definitely want to spend more time planning. Do you take regular medication to stay healthy? Can you get enough of the medication filled before you leave the US? If not, what is your plan to get that medicine abroad? It’s probably a good idea to make sure you have some kind of study abroad health insurance if it’s available to you. You will be grateful later when you find yourself sick with the flu and without all of the natural comforts of home and the easy access to healthcare that you are used to. Other countries have very different healthcare systems. Do your research! Does the insurance coverage you have give you access to a doctor? What are the hurdles if you need medical care?

Another thing to look at is whether you need a doctor to access the care you need. I found after taking the time and expending the energy to see a doctor at the college that many medications you need a prescription for in the US, are actually sold directly over the counter in Europe. Don’t be afraid to ask your local friends about basic health care needs like antibiotic eye drops, or what we know as prescription-strength allergy medication. You will save yourself a lot of time and frustration with just a little research.

Reflect and Grow
  • Embrace becoming and feeling like a very different person 

  • Being okay with coming home a completely different person than as the one you came as

As you embark on and even end your study abroad journey, it’s natural to feel a whirlwind of emotions - nostalgia for the memories you’ve made, nerves for the unknown, gratitude for the opportunities already seized, and hope for the future ahead. Your time abroad undoubtedly will be transformative, filled with adventures, challenges, and lessons that will reshape your outlook on life. As you reflect on your study abroad experience when it has come to a close, it’s essential to embrace the changes within yourself and the impact they’ve had on your journey. 

Throughout the study abroad experience, take moments to pause and reflect on the journey. Whether it’s through journaling, conversations with friends, or quiet personal introspection, reflecting on these experiences allows you to process your emotions, gain insights, and appreciate the growth you’re undergoing. Embrace your highs and lows, challenges and triumphs, knowing that each moment contributes to the mosaic of who you are and who you will become. 

As you prepare to return home, take the time to reflect on how the experience shaped you. Consider how you’ve grown, personally and academically, and how your perspectives have evolved. Acknowledge the challenges you’ve overcome, the connections you’ve forged, and the memories you’ve created. 

Embrace becoming a different person. Embrace the fact that you will return home a different person than who you left as, and that’s okay. Allow yourself to embrace the changes within you, whether they’re subtle shifts in mindset or profound transformations in your worldview. Embracing your personal growth is a testament to the richness of your study abroad experience and the resilience of your spirit. 

As you navigate your transition home, remember that this has equipped you with newfound knowledge, skills, and perspectives that will continue to shape your path forward. Dare to dream, and dream big. 


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