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Fears of Studying Abroad in High School (And How to Overcome Them)

High School New ZealandPhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

By this point, you have scrolled through endless study abroad programs on a myriad of sites. You narrowed your choice using the comprehensive list by Go Overseas. After a great deal of thought you choose that one city in that place with the trees, and you could not be more excited. You have finally convinced your parents to let you fly off on your own. That is when the first glimmers of doubt start to creep in.

You have a comfort zone built around friends, family, and a secure home base. You are about to abandon this comfort for the uneasiness of the unknown. You have seen movies about crazy European road trips, read articles about the dangers lurking around every corner, and have even watched TV shows about the strange foods that foreigners allegedly eat. Afraid of acting like the ugly outsider, anxious to fit in, you might be panicking a little bit right now. Do not worry, you are right in the position of every first-time traveler (or first-time solo traveler). First off, you will be fine and you will flourish. However, take a scroll down the following list of fears and try to incorporate a couple of the tips that you think might work for you.

Do not worry, you are right in the position of every first-time traveler... You will be fine and you will flourish.

1. Fear of being disliked

“They” can be fellow students, teachers, locals, and/or any other people you might encounter while overseas. High school and the teen years are difficult enough without throwing in new cultures and customs. The following piece of advice also applies to those who did not opt to study abroad: people care a lot less than you think. No one is judging you and if they are, they might be the most insecure people of all. Regardless, even if you feel like someone is gawking at you (depending on where in the world you are), try to remember that curiosity is fueling this behavior. If the locals are not used to Westerners, then they might be more inclined to take a long hard look at this strange specimen of humanity. You are an ambassador of your own culture when you are abroad, so try to take this in stride and (as long as the stares do not unnerve you), smile, and bust out your friendly side. You might just make a new pal!

#ActionTip: Now's the time to tap into your bubbly side and let the world in with your beautiful smile! No one wants to befriend a grump, so put your best foot forward.

High School SwedenPhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

2. Fear of not fitting in

You might be worried about sticking out like a sore thumb amongst a group of people that you have nothing in common with. The language, the clothes, the music, and the films may be different. You might worry about feeling like people are laughing at you because you do not understand their sense of humor.

Well, this is all part of moving outside your comfort zone and what comes with studying abroad. Find the fun in striking out on your own and perfecting your small talk skills. Try to find points of commonality with the people around you. Trust me, you will find something in common especially in our globalized society. And the conversations that turn strangers into friends - well - those are the best ones!

Also, take this opportunity to explore a culture that is completely different from your own. You never know, you might find you are a huge Bollywood fan! You could also try getting into the local sports (most likely football-not-soccer), this will endear you to the locals in a heartbeat. Finally, try to learn to laugh at yourself and make the best of any situation. Awkwardness is a part of experiencing something new, but soon this awkwardness will fade and the strange will become familiar.

#ActionTip: The faster you view yourself as less of an outsider the happier your abroad experience will be. Embrace the locals' innocent curiosity about you and your background. Don't let it define your experience / make you feel 'othered'.

3. Fear of overall safety

The media paints the rest of the world as a pretty terrifying place. Violence, natural disasters, unfriendly wildlife, you name it and it has been featured prominently in the news. Do your best to ignore the fear-mongering. Fear sells; don’t buy into it. First of all, try to remember that the U.S. is considered by many foreigners to be a pretty terrifying place itself. Obviously every place has good areas and shady ones, but part of your orientation will be to learn about the local safety policies. You could also do some pre-trip research, although your best bet is to ask a local about how they conduct themselves and you should be good to go. If your Mom and Dad are especially fearful for their pride and joy's safety, just pass them along to this here article.

#ActionTip: Do research about your intended destination prior to arrival - look for local newspapers or read popular travel books/blogs. The more you know and understand, the more prepared you will be if an unfortunate situation arises.

Eating Hot Dogs in AmsterdamPhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

4. Fear of missing home

Being away from your comfort zone for the first time or for a long time can be pretty rough. You end up missing your friends, your family, even that annoying sibling. You can even be homesick for restaurants or brands, and being surrounded by strangeness can wear on you. Don’t worry, everyone goes through this. Think of it as a preliminary for college or for when you move away for work. Try to Skype or Facetime with your loved ones and friends on a weekly schedule. Give them a glimpse of the life you are leading and allow them to participate in it. Keep a blog and update it regularly so people know what you are up to. If you can, you might even be able to convince one or two people to hop on a plane and visit you!

In any case, when the waves of homesickness hit you and nothing seems to make you happy, try to find someone else from your home region and spend some time reminiscing. Watch a favorite TV show and whip up some comfort food. Immerse yourself as much as possible in familiarity and hopefully that will ease the homesickness.

That being said, do not forget to live in the present. While binging on what you left behind can be comforting, it can actually add to the homesickness if you feel completely disassociated from your surroundings. Try to blend the familiar with the unfamiliar and join activities and clubs that you enjoyed at home. You will make friends and hopefully be able to connect to the new foreign culture. Just remember that your home is always waiting for you, but you have only a limited amount of time studying abroad so make sure to take advantage of the opportunity!

#ActionTip: Surround yourself with favorite mementos from home for the moments you're feeling down. To keep the lonely feelings at bay, stay busy and integrate elements from your home life into your new life.

Try to Skype or Facetime with your loved ones and friends on a weekly schedule. Give them a glimpse of the life you are leading and allow them to participate in it.

Girl AbroadPhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

5. Fear of culture shock

I am sure you have heard of the dreaded culture shock. That moment when your complete and utter excitement over being surrounded by so much that is alien all comes crashing down and you feel alienated. Culture shock is an incomplete term in that it can hit after you have been abroad for a while and it comes in waves. If you are going to a society which is completely removed from your own, you will feel an immediate jolt as soon as you get off the plane. Try to let your excitement carry you through, but, if you need to, feel free to escape a little into a group of friends or a place that reminds you of home.

The second phase of culture shock might take a couple of months to build up. Just when you have established a rhythm and found new friends, you might find that that one guy who shouldered past you instead of waiting in line was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Whether your meltdown involves very publicly screaming about this inconsiderate behavior or you have a more private venting session in your room, you will end up feeling sick of your new home. This is normal.

When you are surrounded by such a different culture and have not fully assimilated, it can feel like you will not ever get to a place of comfort and stability. Do not worry, you will get back on top and you will not want to leave by the time the year is up. Do not beat yourself up over feeling frustrated. Instead, try to use humor or find a friend who feels the same way. Turn this situation into an opportunity for further friendship and try to learn to let the little things go.

#ActionTip: Be patient with yourself. Adjusting looks different for different people, so don't compare yourself to your friends or new classmates. Savor the experience and take the ups-and-downs with stride.

Being away from your comfort zone for the first time or for a long time can be pretty rough... Don't worry, everyone goes through this. Think of it as a preliminary for college or for when you move away for work.

Wrap Up

You might have more fears about heading abroad during high school, but I hope this list covers the basic fundamental worries about being in a new culture. Do your research ahead of time, pack a camera, and make sure people send you a care package or two. This year is going to fly by and you might just find yourself bitten by the travel bug.

Cecilia Haynes

Cecilia is a Third Culture Kid who is currently based in Florida. She hopped on her first plane when she was three months old and has yet to stop flying. She has lived in China, India, the U.S., the Philippines, and Turkey. After saving money by working as an English instructor in Hong Kong for a year, she backpacked around the Tibetan Plateau, western China, and northern India.