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Things People Don't Actually Tell You When You Study Abroad

by Amani Onyango. |

Studying abroad is such a big deal fresh out of college, not just because it’s almost like uprooting your life for those few years, but also because it’s a chance to see the world and gain a more cosmopolitan perspective. You always hear about people having their perception changed and travelling to amazing new places, and it sounds all so exciting!

You always hear about people having their perception changed and travelling to amazing new places, but what about the little things that no one talks about? The stuff that people miss when you ask how it would be like. Studying abroad has its pros and cons and hidden surprises, but here are a few things that people might forget to mention:

1. Culture shock might not even happen to you.

Everyone preps for culture shock when moving to a new country, but don’t be surprised if it misses you almost completely. Moving to a new place might make you realise that you fit in there much better than at home. This is not to say that if you don’t experience major culture shock you still won’t need to adjust. There’s still a learning curve, but it’s easier for some and much harder for others.

On the flip side, if you’re struggling with being away from home, try to shrink the duration of the stay in your mind; instead of thinking about how long hundreds of days or months might be, look at it as one or two years (or even less if you’re just on exchange). Find a community of people from your home country so you can have access to food from back home and talk to people who’re going through the same thing. Most importantly, take it one day at a time. You’ve got this!

2. Stay closer to a healthcare provider.

A lot of people don’t talk or rather forget to mention about healthcare when they’re giving you well-intentioned advice like “study hard”, and “remember your roots". They probably don’t want to jinx it by mentioning that you might get sick. Hopefully you won’t, but you shouldn’t rule out the possibility, especially when you’re dealing with new food and new water and your body is racing to adjust. Plus, universities are hotbeds of disease during flu season (just like primary school, yay).

Make sure you know what your insurance covers, and make sure you know where the nearest clinics or hospitals are. If you fall ill, you’ll find it really hard to figure all this out when your body is falling apart. Having all this information within reach will save you a lot of trouble, so you can get the care you need as soon as possible.

3. English isn't really the same everywhere.

Image: Culture Trip

English might be a universal language, but cultural differences can colour it in ways that make it unrecognizable. When I first moved to Malaysia in 2008, it took me ages to get used to the different accents - and obviously all the ‘lah’s. The person on the other end may miss the point of what you’re saying because you’ve both learned two very different, culturally informed brands of English.

That’s part of the fun of it though. You might miss jokes and other comments at first, but soon you’ll learn the unique ways that different countries make English their own. Hopefully you’ll also pick up some of their native slangs so you can break the barrier even further. Don’t hesitate to teach your friends your native language too!* Studying abroad is all about building bridges across cultures, and communication is the best way to connect.

(We know all you’re gonna do is teach each other swear words. I mean, who wouldn’t? Woops!)

4. You'll figure out what you truly value

People might tell you that it’s important to travel, eat different foods, and fully immerse yourself in a particular culture, but when you move abroad and begin to navigate a whole new world, you’ll find a lot of your energy going towards surviving and adjusting. When you’re dealing with that, you quickly figure out what you value the most. Some people enjoy travelling and make the most of their newfound freedom (and sometimes cheaper travel rates) to see the sights. Some jump at the chance to try as many different kinds of food as possible. Others choose to try new opportunities that aren’t available at home, like joining new communities or learning a culturally specific skill.

And then there’s some other people who prefer to seek out the similarities in both countries and keep doing the same thing. They might love shopping at home and try to do the same thing abroad (at the same stores too!). No matter what people say, that’s completely fine.

It's important to at least try to venture out of your comfort zone and experience new things, but don’t force yourself to fit into a particular “study abroad” experience. If it’s not for you, then it’s not for you. Which brings me to my final point:

5. It's okay if it's not a fit for you.

With all the stories about people who loved their time studying abroad, it’s hard not to feel worried if your experience isn’t matching up to your expectations. People sell it as a life-changing thing. Alternatively, something that you don’t like could also be a lessons in disguise. Some people thrive in their home environments and stagnate when they’re taken out of it. That’s completely okay. Different people function differently.

If you find yourself really hating being away from home and wondering why you can’t enjoy this amazing experience, just remember - even if it’s not for you but you’ll still be able to bring back experiences you can’t get and meet friends you might not meet ever again once you graduate. Getting a chance to study abroad is a very challenging yet valuable thing.

Focus on getting through it day by day but make the best of your situation while you’re there.

Good luck!

You may also find out more about Amani on Instagram.

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