4 Things I Wish I Knew Before Studying Abroad (Avoid Disappointment)

After studying abroad for two years in two different countries (Germany and Japan), I’ve found that there are some things that study abroad programs, advisors, promoters, blogs, and articles often don’t advertise, or neglect to talk about. For people who are seriously considering studying or living abroad, there are some things you should know so that you can understand and make the best of your experience and not come away disappointed.

1) It’s better not to have high expectations for studying abroad

Not having high expectations for studying abroad is definitely easier said than done. Though it’s probably impossible to go to another country with absolutely zero  expectations—we all have images in our minds and goals for ourselves when we go to study abroad—it is true that having fewer expectations for yourself and your experience while you’re abroad will most likely result in you having fewer disappointments in the end.

I say this because it’s easy to get caught up in the idealistic images, stories, and language of study abroad programs and websites, which frequently boast about how you will “become fluent in another language,” “travel the world,” “make friends from all over the globe,” and “be immersed in a different culture.” It’s easy to mistake these as being promises or guarantees for your study abroad experience, rather than what they really  are, which are suggestions  of things that could potentially  happen.

Study abroad programs and promoters also have a habit of generalizing people’s experiences abroad by promoting the ideal, which tends to instill unrealistic expectations in exchange students’ minds for their study abroad experiences. While it’s good to go into your study abroad experience with a sense of purpose and ideas about what you would like to do while you’re abroad, it’s not good to set concrete goals or have expectations in general for yourself or your experience. If they end up falling short, it can dampen your perception of your experience, your host country, and your own efforts while living abroad.

The fact of the matter is that there are many things that are out of your control while you’re abroad.

People aren’t obligated to like you just because you’re “foreign” or “different.” Learning a foreign language is difficult—especially as a native English-speaker because everyone wants to practice their English with you. Traveling is expensive and takes a lot of time, which you may not have because you’re forced to be in school most of the time (hence, “studying” abroad). And, your level of immersion in another country is highly dependent on the type of exchange program you’re in, your living situation, and the people you’re surrounded by.

The best thing you can do while you’re abroad is to just try to roll with the punches, take things as they come, and make the best of your experience. Don’t stress yourself out or feel as if you were tricked or failed in some way if your experience abroad isn’t like you hoped it would be—just focus on enjoying what you can while you’re there and don’t hold yourself or your experience to expectations where there’s no guarantee of fulfillment.

2) Studying abroad doesn’t always work out the way you imagine

This is one of those unfortunate facts of life that nobody wants to admit but must be said. While it’s true that there are a lot of people who have an awesome time while they’re abroad, making lots of friends, traveling to touristy locales, becoming fluent in the host country’s language, etc., it’s not necessarily the case for everyone. In fact, most study abroad experiences, I would say, are comprised of a mix of positive and negative experiences, and it’s actually much more common for students to have mediocre or negative experiences than many people think.

I didn’t realize how common it was until after I studied abroad (twice) and experienced it firsthand and spoke to other exchange students about some of their experiences. The problem is that negative experiences often get swept under the rug because they contradict the sunny and flowery narratives and portrayals of studying abroad that many programs and universities try to push onto students. It almost seems taboo to even express having negative experiences while being abroad because they defy the commonly held, and arguably misleading, expectations of studying abroad that are constantly being presented and reaffirmed through social media, travel blogs, and study abroad websites and brochures.

Studying abroad is often portrayed as being something akin to an extended vacation—there are endless stories about all of the traveling and partying and non-studying activities that can go on while one is abroad.

However, studying abroad is just that: your main purpose for being abroad is to study and go to school. It’s not a vacation—you live there and go to school there, and that’s your life. I think it’s safe to say that for most students, their everyday lives are not like a vacation or a party, and for some their everyday lives may even be isolating, confusing, boring, stressful, and even depressing while they’re abroad.

There are many reasons why one’s study abroad experience may not work out. Sometimes it has to do with living arrangements (i.e., bad host families, living in a shoddy building/bad environment, bad roommates/dormmates, etc.). Sometimes it has to do with school (i.e., lousy classes or teachers, disorganized study abroad program, etc.). Sometimes it has to do with lack of time and/or money (i.e., no traveling or inability to go out and do things). Sometimes it has to do with personal issues, which can easily come about for many exchange students while they are abroad (i.e., lack of a social life/social isolation, culture shock, anxiety/depression, health issues/injuries, traumatic events, etc.).

Every study abroad experience is unique and different, and various things can happen while you’re abroad, both those within and beyond our control, which can affect one’s overall experience.  

3) “Culture Shock” and “Reverse Culture Shock” are different for everyone

Every study abroad experience is different and has its own benefits and challenges. Even my two study abroad experiences (one year in Germany and one year in Japan) and the ways and extent that I experienced “culture shock” and “reverse culture shock” were surprisingly completely different.

Most people who have looked into studying abroad or have studied abroad before are probably familiar with the infamous “culture shock” timeline graph, which generalizes the phases that people studying or living abroad go through, starting with the “honeymoon” phase and then rising and dipping throughout the periods of “depression”/“culture shock,” “adjustment,” and then eventually “acceptance”/“assimilation.”

Personally, I really don’t like this graph/timeline because everyone experiences “culture shock” and “reverse culture shock” very  differently.

Some people barely experience any kind of “culture shock” or “depression” when they’re abroad. Others associate “culture shock” with really basic things, such as not being able to find familiar foods in their host country, or having to pay money for water or to go to the bathroom in public places, or different social customs like bowing or taking off one’s shoes, or simply adjusting to not being able to read signs or understand what the people around them are saying as easily as when they’re at home.

For others, “culture shock” can mean actual depression, and discontent, disillusionment, disappointment, etc. with their host country, the host culture, and/or the local population in general, and it may not just be a “phase” for them, it could very well last for the entire duration of their stay abroad.

There are many things that can influence how much (or little) “culture shock” a person can experience while they are abroad. Ultimately, it oftentimes comes down to an individual’s personality, the country in which they are studying abroad, the kind of study abroad program in which they are participating, their location and living situation (i.e., dorm, apartment, host family, etc.), and the duration of time they spend in their host country.

For example, there is a world of  difference between studying abroad for six weeks in a low-immersion environment in England during summer vacation and studying abroad in a high-immersion environment for a whole year in China. The pros and cons for both of those study abroad experiences are completely different as well as the kind and level of “culture shock” or “reverse culture shock” one may experience during their time abroad.

4) Studying abroad shouldn’t be taken too seriously

Honestly, above everything else, your number one priority for studying abroad shouldn’t be just trying to learn the language or studying hard for your classes—it should be having fun. After spending literally thousands  of dollars and going through the headache of acquiring visas and jumping through innumerable hoops of tedious bureaucracy just to get there, your main priority should just be to have as much fun as possible.

While your purpose for studying abroad is  to study, learn the language, and go to school, it shouldn’t be your only focus while you’re abroad.

Your grades abroad are  important and do  count (you shouldn’t be failing classes), but they’re not the only reason you’re there. You shouldn’t sacrifice opportunities to go out and try new things, to travel, or miss out on festivals or events you wanted to go to just because of school, or because you’re trying to fulfill some kind of personal goal (i.e., getting straight A’s).

Too many students go abroad only to end up wasting their time sitting in their rooms studying all the time and skyping and messaging their friends and family back home because they never go anywhere or do anything fun.

Most people, before they study abroad, don’t think, “I really  want to go study abroad in another country on the other side of the world just so I can sit in my room and do exactly  what I do when I’m at home!” So, don’t do that. Go out for drinks or food with your classmates once in a while, travel as much as your savings account allows you to, make it a personal goal to try a new restaurant, to visit a tourist attraction, or go to a nearby city every weekend.

From my observation, the people who enjoy their study abroad experiences the most tend to be the ones who have no expectations for their experience other than just going out and trying to have fun. And, in the process, sometimes they’re also able to improve their language skills and make friends with the locals because  they get around and go out and mingle with other people and are open to trying new things.

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I am a recent graduate from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities with a B.A. in Global Studies and minors in German and Asian Languages and Literatures (Japanese). I have two years of experience studying abroad in Germany and Japan, and am proficient in both German and Japanese. My interests are reading, writing, traveling, languages, politics, and following current events.

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4 Things I Wish I Knew Before Studying Abroad (Avoid Disappointment)

After studying abroad for two years in two different countries (Germany and Japan), I’ve found that there are some things that study abroad programs, advisors, promoters, blogs, and articles often don’t advertise, or neglect to talk about. For people who are seriously considering studying or living abroad, there are some things you should know so that you can understand and make the best of your experience and not come away disappointed.

1) It’s better not to have high expectations for studying abroad

Not having high expectations for studying abroad is definitely easier said than done. Though it’s probably impossible to go to another country with absolutely zero  expectations—we all have images in our minds and goals for ourselves when we go to study abroad—it is true that having fewer expectations for yourself and your experience while you’re abroad will most likely result in you having fewer disappointments in the end.

I say this because it’s easy to get caught up in the idealistic images, stories, and language of study abroad programs and websites, which frequently boast about how you will “become fluent in another language,” “travel the world,” “make friends from all over the globe,” and “be immersed in a different culture.” It’s easy to mistake these as being promises or guarantees for your study abroad experience, rather than what they really  are, which are suggestions  of things that could potentially  happen.

Study abroad programs and promoters also have a habit of generalizing people’s experiences abroad by promoting the ideal, which tends to instill unrealistic expectations in exchange students’ minds for their study abroad experiences. While it’s good to go into your study abroad experience with a sense of purpose and ideas about what you would like to do while you’re abroad, it’s not good to set concrete goals or have expectations in general for yourself or your experience. If they end up falling short, it can dampen your perception of your experience, your host country, and your own efforts while living abroad.

The fact of the matter is that there are many things that are out of your control while you’re abroad.

People aren’t obligated to like you just because you’re “foreign” or “different.” Learning a foreign language is difficult—especially as a native English-speaker because everyone wants to practice their English with you. Traveling is expensive and takes a lot of time, which you may not have because you’re forced to be in school most of the time (hence, “studying” abroad). And, your level of immersion in another country is highly dependent on the type of exchange program you’re in, your living situation, and the people you’re surrounded by.

The best thing you can do while you’re abroad is to just try to roll with the punches, take things as they come, and make the best of your experience. Don’t stress yourself out or feel as if you were tricked or failed in some way if your experience abroad isn’t like you hoped it would be—just focus on enjoying what you can while you’re there and don’t hold yourself or your experience to expectations where there’s no guarantee of fulfillment.

2) Studying abroad doesn’t always work out the way you imagine

This is one of those unfortunate facts of life that nobody wants to admit but must be said. While it’s true that there are a lot of people who have an awesome time while they’re abroad, making lots of friends, traveling to touristy locales, becoming fluent in the host country’s language, etc., it’s not necessarily the case for everyone. In fact, most study abroad experiences, I would say, are comprised of a mix of positive and negative experiences, and it’s actually much more common for students to have mediocre or negative experiences than many people think.

I didn’t realize how common it was until after I studied abroad (twice) and experienced it firsthand and spoke to other exchange students about some of their experiences. The problem is that negative experiences often get swept under the rug because they contradict the sunny and flowery narratives and portrayals of studying abroad that many programs and universities try to push onto students. It almost seems taboo to even express having negative experiences while being abroad because they defy the commonly held, and arguably misleading, expectations of studying abroad that are constantly being presented and reaffirmed through social media, travel blogs, and study abroad websites and brochures.

Studying abroad is often portrayed as being something akin to an extended vacation—there are endless stories about all of the traveling and partying and non-studying activities that can go on while one is abroad.

However, studying abroad is just that: your main purpose for being abroad is to study and go to school. It’s not a vacation—you live there and go to school there, and that’s your life. I think it’s safe to say that for most students, their everyday lives are not like a vacation or a party, and for some their everyday lives may even be isolating, confusing, boring, stressful, and even depressing while they’re abroad.

There are many reasons why one’s study abroad experience may not work out. Sometimes it has to do with living arrangements (i.e., bad host families, living in a shoddy building/bad environment, bad roommates/dormmates, etc.). Sometimes it has to do with school (i.e., lousy classes or teachers, disorganized study abroad program, etc.). Sometimes it has to do with lack of time and/or money (i.e., no traveling or inability to go out and do things). Sometimes it has to do with personal issues, which can easily come about for many exchange students while they are abroad (i.e., lack of a social life/social isolation, culture shock, anxiety/depression, health issues/injuries, traumatic events, etc.).

Every study abroad experience is unique and different, and various things can happen while you’re abroad, both those within and beyond our control, which can affect one’s overall experience.  

3) “Culture Shock” and “Reverse Culture Shock” are different for everyone

Every study abroad experience is different and has its own benefits and challenges. Even my two study abroad experiences (one year in Germany and one year in Japan) and the ways and extent that I experienced “culture shock” and “reverse culture shock” were surprisingly completely different.

Most people who have looked into studying abroad or have studied abroad before are probably familiar with the infamous “culture shock” timeline graph, which generalizes the phases that people studying or living abroad go through, starting with the “honeymoon” phase and then rising and dipping throughout the periods of “depression”/“culture shock,” “adjustment,” and then eventually “acceptance”/“assimilation.”

Personally, I really don’t like this graph/timeline because everyone experiences “culture shock” and “reverse culture shock” very  differently.

Some people barely experience any kind of “culture shock” or “depression” when they’re abroad. Others associate “culture shock” with really basic things, such as not being able to find familiar foods in their host country, or having to pay money for water or to go to the bathroom in public places, or different social customs like bowing or taking off one’s shoes, or simply adjusting to not being able to read signs or understand what the people around them are saying as easily as when they’re at home.

For others, “culture shock” can mean actual depression, and discontent, disillusionment, disappointment, etc. with their host country, the host culture, and/or the local population in general, and it may not just be a “phase” for them, it could very well last for the entire duration of their stay abroad.

There are many things that can influence how much (or little) “culture shock” a person can experience while they are abroad. Ultimately, it oftentimes comes down to an individual’s personality, the country in which they are studying abroad, the kind of study abroad program in which they are participating, their location and living situation (i.e., dorm, apartment, host family, etc.), and the duration of time they spend in their host country.

For example, there is a world of  difference between studying abroad for six weeks in a low-immersion environment in England during summer vacation and studying abroad in a high-immersion environment for a whole year in China. The pros and cons for both of those study abroad experiences are completely different as well as the kind and level of “culture shock” or “reverse culture shock” one may experience during their time abroad.

4) Studying abroad shouldn’t be taken too seriously

Honestly, above everything else, your number one priority for studying abroad shouldn’t be just trying to learn the language or studying hard for your classes—it should be having fun. After spending literally thousands  of dollars and going through the headache of acquiring visas and jumping through innumerable hoops of tedious bureaucracy just to get there, your main priority should just be to have as much fun as possible.

While your purpose for studying abroad is  to study, learn the language, and go to school, it shouldn’t be your only focus while you’re abroad.

Your grades abroad are  important and do  count (you shouldn’t be failing classes), but they’re not the only reason you’re there. You shouldn’t sacrifice opportunities to go out and try new things, to travel, or miss out on festivals or events you wanted to go to just because of school, or because you’re trying to fulfill some kind of personal goal (i.e., getting straight A’s).

Too many students go abroad only to end up wasting their time sitting in their rooms studying all the time and skyping and messaging their friends and family back home because they never go anywhere or do anything fun.

Most people, before they study abroad, don’t think, “I really  want to go study abroad in another country on the other side of the world just so I can sit in my room and do exactly  what I do when I’m at home!” So, don’t do that. Go out for drinks or food with your classmates once in a while, travel as much as your savings account allows you to, make it a personal goal to try a new restaurant, to visit a tourist attraction, or go to a nearby city every weekend.

From my observation, the people who enjoy their study abroad experiences the most tend to be the ones who have no expectations for their experience other than just going out and trying to have fun. And, in the process, sometimes they’re also able to improve their language skills and make friends with the locals because  they get around and go out and mingle with other people and are open to trying new things.

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