For students who haven’t studied abroad, the experience may seem like a four- or five-month period of carefree adventure. Study abroad is often portrayed on social media as an endless barrage of friends beaming in front of beautiful castles and natural wonders. There is no question that studying abroad comes with amazing opportunities, but some students don’t realize how emotionally taxing it can be.
Before I studied abroad in London this fall, I didn’t expect to have such a difficult adjustment period. I struggled to find my place in a social environment where I was unfamiliar with my school and where students at the university I was visiting had already established their groups of friends. I felt lonely and anxious because I didn’t have the strong community I was used to, and what made it worse was that I felt alone in my experience.
The Office for Study Abroad should do more to prepare students for the loneliness and anxiety they may experience while studying abroad and connect students with counselors and other resources at their host schools. Most importantly, the University should make it clear to students that it’s OK to feel sad or scared even in the midst of an experience that they are excited about. Studying abroad comes with a wide range of emotions and students should feel encouraged to express their feelings even when it is not as pretty as the photos they post on Instagram.
During the orientation session from the Office for Study Abroad, advisers talked about specific challenges that come with adjusting to a new country, like culture shock and missing our friends and the comfort of campus. It’s great that they warn students about these challenges, but after going through the experience myself, I wish they had also talked about how lonely study abroad can be and that it’s normal to feel this way, even after the first couple of weeks. If I had known this and had the opportunity to talk about it with peers or advisers beforehand, I might have felt less isolated and anxious about my unfamiliar surroundings when it seemed like everyone else was settled.
Feeling lonely or anxious while studying abroad is common, which is why it is important for students to have conversations about these feelings with professionals who are equipped to support them and other peers who may be experiencing the same thing. As many as 60 percent of students experience stress and loneliness during their time abroad, according to a University of Minnesota study. Discussing these feelings will not completely remedy them, but students should not feel alone or afraid to admit they are struggling. Study abroad advisers need to communicate how common stress and loneliness can be, not only for the students who will experience those feelings but also so that others can better understand and support their peers.
There are multiple ways the Office for Study Abroad can assist students while they are overseas. The office could dedicate days on the GW study abroad Facebook and Instagram pages to having current abroad students share what helped them deal with stress and loneliness. Some Facebook groups run by advisers in charge of specific study abroad programs, like the GW England group I was a member of, already do something like this, but facilitating and promoting the groups on the general study abroad accounts would be effective in making students feel supported before they leave.
Students who didn’t struggle as much while abroad may not see the need for these measures, but they could make a difference for others struggling during their experiences.
During the sessions, the office and other students expressed that any stress we might experience was only limited to the adjustment period of the first couple weeks. They also often advised that if we did experience these feelings at the beginning of study abroad, the best thing to do was just to focus on all the new adventures we would have. Even though it is helpful to stay in the moment, it’s also important to address what you feel and not ignore it because you think you’re supposed to be having fun. Advisers should still give this advice to students, but they should emphasize that feelings of loneliness and stress should be vocalized and that it’s normal to feel this way even after you have adjusted to your new home.
Additionally, study abroad advisers on the ground in host countries should reach out to their students individually from time to time. My program’s on-site advisers did a great job organizing group events that helped students get to know each other, but most of the individual interaction I had with them was about academics. Some students may have no interest in meeting with the advisers for anything other than academic or program-related questions, but advisers should reach out so students are comfortable approaching them.
Checking in regularly to ask about how things are going would help students know that they have a solid support system – even if they are miles from home. Although these may seem like small changes, they would help students understand that it’s OK to experience a roller coaster of emotions abroad and that they have support from their peers and advisers.
Encouraging a more open dialogue about the difficulties of studying abroad will communicate to students that it’s OK to feel lonely or stressed during a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Having these emotions does not mean that you regret going abroad or that you are ungrateful for the experience. I loved studying in London not only because I got to live in an amazing city, but because the experience helped me grow mentally and emotionally. It is because of the days that I was particularly lonely or anxious that I became a stronger, more confident person.
Natalie Prieb, a junior majoring in English and creative writing, is a Hatchet columnist.
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