Most universities and programs provide study abroad candidates with a packet of some sort which outlines school policies, advises on insurance matters, and provides rudimentary packing lists. As a recent returnee from a 6-month overseas excursion, I can attest to a few more hints that these paper piles might overlook.
Before my January departure, I filed away many a question in my mental lockbox because my pre-abroad guide covered little more than the business side of study overseas: emergency contact numbers, what to do if I was arrested, how I might fit my life into a single carry-on and one 50.5-pound-or-less checked bag, how embarking on this journey will awake my soul and alter my worldview. While all of this was immeasurably helpful, I felt that I needed to know something more; but those inquiries played on the fringes of my mind, and so I was unable to name them explicitly.
Travel is an intimately individual experience. Even if you are taking a trip with another person or people, and you physically engage in the exact same itinerary with little deviation aside from the food and drink you consume, the inward impressions left upon you will differ. Thus, I am not writing this as a means of saying that studying abroad will absolutely be this way or that: I am merely offering guidance to the more fine-print qualities of a 6-plus month adventure, there and back again.
My study abroad in Sweden contained my first intercontinental flight, my first time living entirely on my own (I’ve had roommates through college), my first time travelling alone, and my first time being in a foreign country in general. I knew to expect some brand of culture shock – though my personal blend was far from generic, and from such I realized that not everyone undergoes its stages sequentially, as I’ll mention more below. I knew that Scandinavian temperatures were certainly not on-par with Florida’s almost constant summer. I knew that flights are long and often grueling and exhausting, that jumping time zones can catalyze extreme jet lag.
Though I was aware that I would react to these drastic shifts in my lifestyle, I did not know how. I cannot tell you how they’ll impact you, either. But my observations may ring true for any of you who are studying, volunteering, or working in a foreign country, and perhaps this conversation will help you prepare yourself for your travels, there and back again.
1. Long flights are the most comfortable. The seats are wider, leg room is expanded somewhat, and large airlines – such as Delta, with whom I flew – generally offer a spiffy selection of entertainment: movies (The Hobbit, The Imitation Game, and Interstellar played on my screen), music, television shows, even games. The flight attendants offer basic comforts like pillows, sleep masks, and earbuds prior to takeoff – though, if you have access, I’d recommend bringing a travel pillow of your own and using the generic handout as a supplementary cushion.
2. On airline food: It is not that awful. On my return flight, from Amsterdam to Atlanta, Delta offered several courses: peanuts; three entree selections – I chose creamy pasta with a side salad and vinaigrette, cheese and crackers, a white roll and butter, and two little double chocolate cookies; a Mediterranean-themed snack box of olives, hummus, crackers, and a cocoa-sultana cluster; a veggie panini with mozzarella; and vanilla-chocolate ice cream. Plane food has improved over the years, and thus should not be feared. Delta also brewed Starbucks coffee, and offered complimentary wine, beer, and cocktails to all cabins. Though I admittedly cannot speak for other airlines (aside from Icelandair, which I know does not serve food even on long journeys), I’d imagine that major operators would treat their customers similarly.
3. The first weekend is tough. Tears, regret, uncertainty, and an overwhelming urge to give up and return to the comforts of your armchairs and gardens and fluffy cats are all typical symptoms of a new study abroad student, and are fully valid. I assure you, however, that once classes start and socializing events kick into gear, the feelings will take a seat in the back. Take advantage of these social opportunities instead of holing up indoors: everyone else is probably struggling, too. However, keep in mind –
4. Culture shock comes in waves. My final month was my worst aside from initial entry and adjustment. Everyone undergoes the stages of culture shock differently, so you are not odd or broken for skipping stages and having them out of order. You might feel wonderful and integrated after week one, only to plunge into fear and resentment with two weeks left. Likewise, plowing over them entirely and going through a study abroad shock-free can happen too, though I’d vouch that it’s much less common.
5. Weird things might happen to your body. I broke out immensely from dietary differences, experienced odd aches and pains from the cold, my hair dried out and dulled in color, and I was constantly starving even when I ate square meals and snacks. Climate, stress, and general anxieties can cause your inner functions to fluctuate. If these are overly prolonged or cause you intense discomfort, consult a medical professional.
6. Speaking of medical care, have a basic familiarity with your host country’s system. In Sweden, I had to see a general care doctor before being referred to a specialist when I injured my eye. I knew this was the case, which helped tone down my fear of navigating a foreign operation. Research the healthcare quality and procedures prior to your flights and stow a basic understanding in your memory. Also, be sure to know your country’s emergency number.
7. You don’t always meet life-changing friends. Sometimes, the companions you link up with are temporary, and once you head home you might never speak to one another again. While it’s important to connect with others during a study abroad in order to make travel buddies, pub-hop pals, or brunch buddies, don’t feel obligated to keep them in your life once you go home if you truly don’t feel connected. Deep, meaningful relationships don’t always result – and such can heighten your thankfulness for your loved ones at home.
8. Travel may not be for you. Being worldly has innumerable benefits, but you may realize that venturing so far from the familiar is not your cup of tea. That is okay. Life and adventure have no perfect, prescribed formulas. Stay-cations are very much a thing, and do not require double-digit-hour flights and bursting suitcases.
9. Spend your money your way. Financial intelligence is wise. Indulge in meals, souvenirs, and side vacations as much or as little as you please, but if you’d rather consider the aftermath of your trips and save some money for a new apartment come your next semester at home instead of tossing your every penny, don’t feel guilty for it. If your pals want to blow their life-savings on club nights and you don’t, that is your (and their) prerogative. Do what you’re comfortable with, and jump in when the events fit your agenda and budget.
10. You won’t necessarily go through a “rebirth.” A reawakening of the spirit can happen when travelling, but not having that does not translate to an inefficient study abroad. Satisfaction may come in smaller tides, such as feeling accomplished for surviving the difficult, realizing that black coffee isn’t so bad, and that Mexican food in your hometown is a godly creation compared to Scandinavia, and should never be taken for granted again.
11. Pack cozy socks. Even if your climate isn’t akin to Sweden, a warm pair of stockings is a homely addition to your one-suitcase wardrobe. They’re rather handy (footy?) on long flights, too.
12. Your friends at home won’t forget you exist. If they loved you before you left, they’ll love you upon your return. You and your comrades may not talk daily – in fact, don’t expect to; you may not converse at all – but they still think about you as much as, if not more than, you do.