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How to Deal with a Bad Study Abroad Experience

stressed, girl

Studying abroad is a rite of passage for many students these days, and it comes with a ton of expectations and high hopes for everything from learning a new language to dating someone from another country. However, you may have discovered by now that not everything in life will go exactly as planned, and studying abroad is no exception.

You may arrive for your program in Beijing only to discover that it’s nothing like the image you had in your head, or get your heart set on living in one particular neighborhood and end up living in a homestay on the opposite side of town.

Alternately, something completely out of your control may occur while you’re there, as it did for the students who had to be evacuated and transfer or leave their programs in February 2011 following the devastating earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand.

However, you may have discovered by now that not everything in life will go exactly as planned, and studying abroad is no exception.

There’s no way you can plan for everything, but it helps to have some idea of the steps to take in the event of a change of plans, whether on a small or very large scale. Depending on what the issue is, these steps may involve logistical, emotional or even legal processes.

They may be actions you can take independently, or ones that rely on other people in your new country or even back at home. Ultimately, though, it’s up to you to decide how to respond to an unexpected event, and these suggestions may help you feel a little less caught off guard.

Look Back at Your Original Expectations

So what exactly did you plan? Did you expect that you would arrive, immediately become fluent in the language and make dozens of friends within the first week? Or that classes wouldn’t actually require attendance, or that it would always be sunny?

It’s hard not to be excited heading into a study abroad semester, but sometimes we let our imaginations run away and create expectations that are completely disconnected from the reality we find when we arrive.

Study abroad is, after all, a learning process, and sometimes we have to learn about ourselves before we can learn anything else.

If you’re starting to feel like everything is wrong, it might be a good idea to examine your own assumptions before blaming everyone else. What did you see happening? What did you plan to do or accomplish? Are those images, ideas and goals realistic, given what you know now?

If not, it may be a good idea to reshape your expectations to more accurately fit what is actually occurring around you. Study abroad is, after all, a learning process, and sometimes we have to learn about ourselves before we can learn anything else.

Focus on What You Can Control

girl, calm, meditate

We don’t decide if an earthquake happens in our study abroad city, or opposition groups stage a coup or part of the country secedes or bird flu breaks out again.

Obviously these are all extreme cases, but they do happen, and they’re illustrative of the completely uncontrollable events that can occur, despite our best efforts.

Certainly if you’re close to a devastating hurricane, it’s likely you’ll end up having to leave early, but there are a number of other events far out of your control that could affect your program in a less permanent way -- a teacher’s strike, perhaps, or unrest around elections, or your city losing power for a whole week.

While you can’t dictate the weather or local employment laws, try to make the best of your time to avoid feeling like you’re wasting days or weeks. Just living somewhere else is a learning experience, even if you’re not in class, so there’s no excuse for being bored or feeling like your time is going to waste.

So, keep going to your internship, find a short-term volunteer gig, or start hanging out all the time at your favorite coffee shop or language exchange. Find opportunities to do things that might have otherwise slipped by, and you’ll never feel like you’re wasting a single minute.

Focus on the Positive

I was so excited when I arrived in Buenos Aires for my study abroad semester. I imagined it would be full of culture, opportunities to improve my Spanish, meaningful classes on human rights and great wine. I was sure I would make lots of friends and absolutely love the city.

What I didn’t plan for was the possibility that I wouldn’t want to be friends with 99 percent of the other students in my program, or that my entire class would just be based around seemingly disconnected lectures and one final paper, or that I wouldn’t like the taste of fernet.

Instead of focusing on these issues, try to balance them with other aspects of being abroad you like.

I spent probably a month or two sulking about this, and then finally decided to get over myself and actually start looking for the things I liked: a few people, all of the ice cream flavors, Malbec, museums, every single alfajor I ever encountered.

There were thousands of things to love about Buenos Aires and about my time there – for a while though, I just wasn’t looking for them. There will almost certainly be some aspects of your study abroad program or location that you find disappointing – and that’s normal.

Instead of focusing on these issues, though (unless they’re serious threats to your health, safety or emotional well-being, like depression while studying abroad), try to balance them with other aspects of being abroad that you like, to keep the balance from tipping completely toward the negative.

What to Do If Something Serious Happens...

lonely, thinking, cliff, girl

A short strike or extended rainy season is one thing, but what if something really serious happens? This could either be an incident that directly impacts you (an armed robbery or assault) or some sort of overall disaster or instability in your host country (a tsunami, or declaration of martial law, for example).

If there’s an event that affects your personal safety, this is no longer an issue for you to deal with on your own. Depending on the nature and severity of the incident, there are several steps you should take to work through whatever is happening:

Do Your Own Security Analysis

Are you in a safe place? How do you feel? Your own personal security is priority #1, so make sure you’re secure before doing anything else. If you were assaulted or robbed, the most important thing is to get yourself to a hospital or the police station to deal with it immediately -- you can call your program director or contact at your local university from there, once you feel safe.

If there is civic unrest, violence or a natural disaster, it’s vital that you find a safe space before you do anything else. Once your physical safety is assured, you can start dealing with all the other logistics.

Talk to Your Program and Your Home University

This should be your first phone call in any sort of event, whether you were robbed at gunpoint or half the city is underwater. Your program will have an emergency protocol for such situations and has a contingency plan in place for dealing with security or health crises.

Regardless of whether your program is run through your university or independently, you should also contact your study abroad advisor or another official at your home university to update them on what’s happened and get their input on the right steps to take. This is important not only for you, but also for your program and university, which need to know where you are and account for your security, especially if there’s a question about whether you can stay where you are.

In the event of a major disaster, you should be in communication with your local program director as much as possible to find out what you’re expected to do and where you may need to go. Good programs, by the way, will be doing their part to contact you and have an emergency plan in place should an issue like this arise.

Talk to Your Family

There’s a reason this isn’t the first step -- although your family loves you, they aren’t there with you, and their first response to anything that might pose a risk to you will probably be to tell you to come home. While this can be the right thing to do, it isn’t in every situation, and it’s helpful to consult with people in your location first. However, your family should be advised of what’s going on, especially if there’s a possibility you may need to leave or be evacuated.

It's helpful to evaluate this option before you speak with them, so you know whether it's realistic and would actually be beneficial for you or just a distraction.

Again, your study abroad program provider absolutely should have a plan already in place for these emergency situations (ask this question before you leave!) and one step is to contact your family on your behalf.

If the situation is serious, your family will have been notified, but you may still want to hop on the phone and talk to them in person. (Side note for parents: this goes both ways, if you don't hear anything from your kid's study abroad program, don't assume the worst has happened. They will, and I repeat they will contact you ASAP if there's an emergency.)

When talking to your family, try to stay as calm as possible -- they will probably feel helpless and frustrated that you’re so far away, and may even want to come to where you are. It’s helpful to evaluate this option before you speak with them, so you know whether it’s realistic and would actually be beneficial for you or just a distraction.

If Necessary, Get In Touch with Your Embassy

In the event of an evacuation, your program will likely be coordinating with the embassy, but as a citizen you also have the right to about what you might be expected to do. Even if there isn’t an evacuation order, it’s never a bad idea to contact your embassy’s citizen services to inform them about your situation and see if there are any services available to you.

If You End Up Leaving...

thinking, boy

Nobody wants to think about the possibility of leaving a study abroad program early, but it can happen due to a number of factors, including serious health problems, a death in the family or other issues back at home, assault, evacuation because of a political or natural crisis, financial concerns, or even depression.

You don’t have to have an exit plan before you start your program, but it does help to at least know the basic ground rules in place, should such an event occur.

Review Your Program’s Rules about Leaving Early

Whether you choose to leave for personal reasons or are required to leave because of extenuating circumstances, you should be aware of your program’s protocol for such situations.

Most programs have rules about what happens when students leave (who pays for the flight home, whether you’ll still receive class credit, etc.) but these can vary depending on your reasons for leaving and your travel insurance coverage. If anything isn’t clear, ask your program about it -- you have the right to know your rights and what you can expect in terms of support, both financial and otherwise.

Do Some Processing

If you had to leave your study abroad program early, it was likely because of a major event, which may have been frightening or even traumatic for you.

You may have a number of different emotions tied to the experience, and it’s important that you take the time you need to process, sort through them and begin any healing processes necessary, potentially with the help of a counselor.

As you're working through your feelings, try to remember events, people or places that made you feel good while you were there.

Trust us -- this may seem like a drastic step but unresolved trauma can manifest in many different ways, some of them dangerous, so be aware of how you’re feeling and don’t try to pretend that everything is okay if you feel like it isn’t. Also, even if you don't feel like this really applies to you, it can be helpful to talk things out with a professional or someone else who has had a similar situation. Don't suffer alone.

However, it’s also important to remind yourself that the incident doesn’t represent the entirety of your study abroad experience, even if it does seem to overshadow everything.

As you’re working through your feelings, try to remember events, people or places that made you feel good while you were there. With time, you may find you’re able to reflect on some positive things you did learn and gain from your time abroad, even if it was cut short.

Explore Other Options, If You Want To

If you still have your heart set on studying abroad, there’s no reason why it can’t still happen. This is the time to get in touch with your study abroad advisor and start to explore other options.

If it’s early in the semester, you may still be able to transfer to another program in a different location -- otherwise, you might have to look at how you can schedule your required classes in a way that will free up another semester for study abroad. It might require a bit of extra effort or planning ahead, but your advisor will understand that your circumstances are different and may be able to help you find a way to make your study abroad experience happen (the way it’s supposed to) in the end!

There's Support Out There!

Planning for anything is difficult -- life is just always getting in the way -- but it’s especially challenging when something goes wrong while you’re in another country, removed from your normal support system.

Still, you’re not the first person to experience a change in plans while studying abroad, so remember that there are resources and people there to support you and help you get through everything, whatever the cause may be. You never know what sort of advice might be waiting on the other end of that phone call!

Photo Credits: Lydia Voss, Gina Rogari, Caitlin Crawford, and Caasi Simpson.
Photo of Natalie Southwick

Natalie has made appearances in 16 different countries to date. Her favorite is definitely Colombia, where she spent 3.5 years ogling mountains on a daily basis, eating an overwhelming amount of arepas and working with human rights organizations. She's currently finishing up a master's degree in Denver, where her main activities are trying not to get in fights about Boston sports teams and attempting to convince herself that the Rocky Mountains are just as good as the Andes, even though we all know that's not true.