When I was just out of school, I saw an ad for a volunteer program teaching English in Nepal. For some reason, it seemed like something I had to do. I got myTeaching English as a Foreign Language certificate, planned my trip and set out for a nine-month trip around the world on my own and on a very tight budget.
The trip was amazing; my time in Nepal was not. The organization that happily took my money had no support to offer. The school wasn’t ready for me. I became very ill, throwing up all day around teaching my classes. Despite the fact that I met all my teaching obligations, befriended my students and even edited and revised all the English teaching materials in the school, my only communication with the organization was a few angry, dismissive emails from them that I wasn’t “engaged” or “friendly” enough.
They didn’t care that I was sick, or that I was experiencing very real culture shock. They didn’t offer any tips. They didn’t show any empathy. I felt abandoned.
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Now I am the Managing Director for Loop Abroad, a study abroad organization for students and young adults. One of my main goals, every single day, is to ensure that none of our students or applicants feel that way. Sometimes I think study abroad is presented as if it’s only for a certain kind of student: wealthy, outgoing, easily comfortable in new situations, constantly at ease. If that’s you, great! But if it’s not, don’t think that study abroad can’t be for you. Because I was none of these things, and I now know that study abroad could have been perfect for me if I’d known how to approach it.
Over the past 13 years, I’ve interned abroad, traveled abroad, taught abroad and now helped hundreds of students travel abroad. If you want to go abroad but worry it’s too much for you, here are my top five suggestions.
1. Start Small
It can be tempting to think, “I’m already paying for the plane ticket, so I may as well stay all year,” or “Since I’m flying there already, I should add other countries too.” This is a great strategy, but don’t feel like you have to do everything.
Traveling abroad is wonderful and it’s a great investment in yourself, but it’s also (like lots of great things) hard work. Starting with a short program, like one or two weeks abroad, can be a good way to try it out and build your travel skills and confidence. You also may have less anxiety if you know you’ll only be gone for a short time.
You will encounter people who you feel are one-upping you — they were gone longer, they were on their own… whatever. Do what you’re comfortable with and see how it goes. You can always go again!
2. Choose Your Program With Care
If you’ll be traveling with a program instead of on your own, do your research! Don’t just talk to your study abroad office and go on whichever on they recommend. Don’t just go on the one you heard of through your friend. There are lots of great search tools online to help you find the program that best fits you.
I actually think the country of travel (unless you’re very passionate about a particular culture) matters very little. Look for programs where you find the content interesting and engaging. Beyond that, here are some things to consider:
• How big is the group? Think about the group setting in which you do best, and find out what your group size will be. Some people will be very happy in a group of 30+ students, while others would like to be in a small group of seven or eight.
• How much do you have to navigate on your own? Programs vary widely in this respect. Loop Abroad’s programs, for example, don’t even allow students to be on their own. Some people might hate that — but some students really love the confidence and security it gives them! Other programs may require you to fly on your own, navigate housing on your own or get to the program site on your own each day. Deciding what you’re comfortable with can go a long way. (The same goes for languages: if the idea of navigating in a foreign language each day stresses you out, that doesn’t mean you can’t travel abroad! Many programs offer study abroad in your native language.)
• What is the “vibe” of the program? This is a big one, and it’s best found off the program’s website and talking to people who have attended. But, if the website is your best tool, take a careful look. Look at the photos and the language used. Is this a party trip? Is it a serious academic endeavor?
You may want to ask the program if drinking alcohol is allowed, for example. But you might look beyond what the program says to online reviews to get a feel for what the group dynamic is like. There’s no right or wrong here – but if the “vibe” of the trip sounds bad to you, you probably haven’t found the right program. Asking alums or program representatives to describe their typical student is a great start. If you can, talk to someone who’s been on your actual program instead of just a sales rep.
• How much staff will you have available? If you are worried about anxiety or stress when traveling abroad, it can important to know what the staff set-up is like. Is there staff just for your group, who will know you well and be able to help? How old are they? Will they be available in the evenings? If you are someone who wouldn’t be likely to call for help if you needed it, consider what would happen if something went wrong. Who is available to help you?
The number of staff isn’t the most important thing, but it’s good to know what your support system will be.
• Can you get clear information about things that matter to you? Everyone has different things they care about. It may be very important to you to know what food is available. You may want to be sure about any additional costs, or that your phone will work where you’re going, or that you’re able to purchase a certain medicine if yours runs out.
Ask those questions, and anything you’re nervous about. Your program should be able to give you clear, direct answers.
• Can you get the financial support you need? Study abroad doesn’t have to just be for “rich kids.” With careful planning, most students can study abroad. There are scholarships and grants available, and financial aid, and some programs can help you with payment plans. If you find your dream program, talk to them about options. Showing that you are willing to work to make it possible will help them to share opportunities with you.
3. Share Your Concerns — and If They Don’t Listen, Bail
If you are worried about something, share it with your program advisor or director. If someone in the group is treating you badly, or you are feeling anxious or confused or the trip isn’t what you had in mind, talk to someone on the staff about your concerns. They may not be able to fix everything, but having someone listen and advocate for your feelings is important.
If you feel unsafe, uncared for or at risk, or if you aren’t finding the program to be healthy for you, don’t be guilted into staying. It’s OK to say, “I tried this but it isn’t for me. I will try again another time.” Generally with short-term programs, you will find that you can stick it out and have a nice time. But if you’ve gone abroad for a semester or year and you are unsafe or feel that there is danger not being addressed, you should speak up and you should feel like you can ask for help in changing your plans.
4. Have a Plan
Having a plan is the key to removing the stress from a study abroad experience. Get a packing list early and follow it, and ask questions if you’re unsure if something is necessary or what it’s for. Understand all the payments and program expenses and plan ahead for your fundraising and payment goals — that will help you avoid unnecessary stress and also late fees and rush fees, which can add up!
Provide for yourself in the ways that make you feel comfortable and secure. Maybe that means bringing a box of your favorite protein bars, your favorite blanket from home or a global cell phone plan so you can call home. Maybe it means looking at the airport map ahead of time or writing down some key phrases in the local language. Think of what brings you support and stability when things are hard, and plan for that. If you know that you sometimes need time alone, or that you like to get up early, share that with your group and do what you can to seek out what you need.
Expect that you will experience culture shock and/or jet lag, and that those things may make you feel tired, irritable, moody, homesick and even ill for the first few days of your trip. Plan for some self-care and don’t let it derail your trip. You can acknowledge it by telling yourself, “OK, this is culture shock, and I feel alone and lost, but I knew this was coming. I am going to go through the motions for just today, and tomorrow I will feel better.” Culture shock is real and so are the tears, stomach pains, irritability or whatever symptoms you experience. But you can bond with your group about it! It’s easier if you know it’s coming and that feeling lousy for a day or two doesn’t mean that you’ll hate your group, our program or your experience. Your program staff should be able to help you find your footing and start to enjoy your program if you’re having a hard time.
5. Try Again
Sometimes you find the perfect trip on the first try — awesome! Maybe you’ll travel with them again, or maybe you’ll try something new next time.
But sometimes it’s tough, and you come home exhausted. Don’t make any decisions yet. The first time abroad is like the first time you go running; it will be easier next time. If you know it’s for you but you just aren’t there yet, don’t stop! And when you start planning your next trip and someone laughs and says, “Again? You complained so much last time!” you can smile and say, “Part of growing as a person is trying things more than once. I can complain when something is hard and still have a positive experience.” (OK, you will be thinking something a lot meaner than that, but that person can hush, because you’re doing it!)
Studying abroad is worth it. Travel is worth it. But it’s hard! Like most things worth doing, it takes planning, perseverance and a willingness to change. When I was 21, I hadn’t left North America, and even the idea of spicy food horrified me — traveling alone seemed impossible. Now, I’ve been to all seven continents and one-third of the countries in the world, many of them alone, and travel has brought me some of my best experiences and introduced me to some of my best friends. Be proud of yourself for being willing to explore the idea of travel abroad, and treat it like the marathon it is by making a plan, taking care of yourself, getting the information you need to thrive, finding the right program for you and knowing that the first time won’t go perfectly — but that’s OK!
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