How to Deal With Common Study Abroad Challenges

Common Study Abroad Challenges and How to Deal With Them

I was afraid I had made a huge mistake, and I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone back home about it. I was in an apartment in Cuba where the phone connection was so weak there was no sense calling anyone when it rained, sharing a cold shower and two bathrooms with sixteen other roommates.

Let’s face it, study abroad isn’t always non-stop fun. Sometimes, it's hard.

I was supposed to be bravely enjoying my grand adventure, one I chose in spite of worries from family, friends, and my then-boyfriend. Instead, I was cold, tired, and homesick, bundled in every warm thing I owned during a record cold-snap in the Caribbean.

Let’s face it, study abroad isn’t always non-stop fun. Sometimes, it's hard.

The Challenges of Studying Abroad

Many assume study abroad will be leisurely like other kinds of travel: treating yourself to good food, nights out, and side trips. But study abroad isn’t a vacation; it’s real life. The cost of dining out will eventually add up, the late nights will make you oversleep when it’s time for class, and the overall pace can leave you running ragged. Even if you take it easy, the same day to day ups and downs that affect you back home will find you abroad -- sometimes amplified.

Add all of that on top of the normal day to day stress of being a college student are all the realities of being abroad. Your usual support system is far away, and may not be able to relate to your experience.

You're probably in a culture different from your own, and may experience culture shock, a progression of feelings that includes both euphoria and aggravation with your newfound home. A foreign language, different social norms, and new food can amplify everyday frustrations until you feel like you've had enough.

Study abroad

Making matters worse, there's a lot of pressure added to your time overseas. You or your family have likely spent a lot of money, and for many, there will only be one chance to study abroad. A study abroad semester may also be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for international travel.

All of that can lead a person to feel like they are ungrateful, or not making the best use of their time when challenges come up. If there are folks back home who didn’t fully support your decision to go abroad, you may feel like expressing anything other than complete joy is proving them right. If you’re homesick, you could be nervous that reaching out will upset loved ones back home, or could cause you to let them realize how tough of a time you’re having.

How to Feel Better During a Study Abroad Slump

But don’t distress! This is all completely normal, and there are plenty of ways to make it better. You may feel otherwise because we’re living in an age of social media.

If you’re feeling particularly homesick or your stomach is having a hard time with the local food, cut yourself some slack and indulge in food that makes you feel good.

Countries that once had limited internet access are now full of wifi hotspots, and with so many people quitting their jobs to travel the world as digital nomads (ad) or documenting lives as online influencers, it’s hard not to feel like international travel is nothing but great vibes and fun adventures.

Sign off social media

Your Facebook probably looks as fun and intimidating to others as theirs does to you. If you find yourself plagued by FOMO (fear of missing out), try checking out of social media for a few days or weeks. It’s amazing how much better your life feels when you’re not constantly comparing it to other people’s.

Identify the real culprit of your bad feelings

One way to take charge of your experience is to try pinpointing what has you feeling so down in the first place. For me, the trifecta is being tired, cold, and hungry: I can handle one or two of those at the same time, but if all three happen at once my mind starts spiraling with thoughts of regret. Figure out what's really getting you down, and try to fix it.

Reconnect with your host country with fresh eyes

On the other hand, if you’re down in the dumps about your new country, culture shock may be the culprit. One way to overcome that is to reconnect with the place you’re in and why you chose it in the first place.

Check out that museum you’ve been meaning to see, or relax at the little cafe that caught your eye when you first arrived. If you’ve been darting throughout the country or region, take some time to really appreciate the city or town you’re in -- sometimes traveling too much is the culprit.

Rest and don't try to "do it all"

The hard parts of study abroad

It’s amazing how often being overtired can turn small annoyances into big problems. Spend a weekend in with some much-needed R&R, and keep an eye on when you turn in for the night when you have class the next day.

Sometimes it stinks to be the one staying in or heading home early when others are going to the next club or headed out to a concert, but if you’re exhausted you won’t have much fun anyway, and you’ll pay for it in the morning. Pay attention to your own needs and rest up so you can get back out there with more energy.

Excercise

Don’t underestimate the power of exercise either. Even if you’re feeling down, exerting more energy can raise your mood in a big way. Even just going for a walk can help clear your head.

If you’re used to playing on an intramural team or visiting a state of the art gym back at your home university, one quick way to start feeling like yourself again is to get active. Ask around on campus to see if there are any teams you can join, pickup games or running groups.

Indulge in thoughtful hobbies

Other hobbies can help you feel good again, even if they don’t come with an endorphin rush. Reading a good book that takes place in your host country, journaling or blogging about your experience, and taking photos of your study abroad location can all be great ways to connect hobbies you love to your study abroad experience.

Eat some comfort food... from home

Food can also affect us in dramatic ways. If you’re feeling particularly homesick or your stomach is having a hard time with the local food, cut yourself some slack and indulge in food that makes you feel good.

Even if you’re feeling down, exerting more energy can raise your mood in a big way.

On the flip side, if you’ve been indulging in a steady stream of late-night street food, it may be time to remember what vegetables taste like. If you’re used to a university with a meal plan and find yourself responsible for all your own meals, it can be quite an adjustment. Try getting friends together for a potluck, and trade recipes.

Find others who relate

Of course, there’s no reason to go through this alone. Try talking to roommates, classmates or friends in your program. Find someone you can be open with, but try not to get sucked into a cycle of negativity, especially if you’re talking with other study abroad students. It can be easy for blowing off a little steam to turn into a very unpleasant conversation that reinforces your concerns instead of alleviating them.

While friends and family back home may not understand exactly what you’re experiencing, they still know you well and will want what’s best for you, so don’t be afraid to reach out. You can also try connecting with other travelers and study abroad students, whether in facebook groups, on websites like Go Overseas and Matador or on travel-centric twitter chats.

Dealing with study abroad challenges

You can also find meet expats and travelers through CouchSurfing, MeetUp, or Wanderful. These groups will connect you to people who know what it’s like to leave home behind. Sometimes, just talking with someone else who gets it can make all the difference.

Another great resource is the program or university you’re studying abroad with, as well as your school back home. You’re definitely not the first student to have some tough times, so they’ll have experience with this. Your on-location staff can help you connect to other students in your program, or suggest events to get you excited about where you’re studying. If you’re having a more prolonged issue, like a class that’s a poor fit, an internship that wasn’t what you expected, or not getting along with a roommate, they’re the person who can suggest adjustments to resolve the situation. While you may be tempted to go it alone, there’s nothing wrong with asking for help, and sometimes shouldering too much of a burden can make things worse.

If it's more than just feeling bummed out, take action

If it starts to feel like the burden is becoming too much to bear or is lasting too long, you may be experiencing something more serious than homesickness or burnout. Your program or university administrators can help connect you to someone if you think speaking with a counselor may help.

If you’ve had emotional health issues in the past, studying in a foreign country can exacerbate them, especially if you’re not prepared for it. Some students mistakenly think travel will make their problems go away, or that the early excitement of study abroad warrants going off of medications.

Be sure to always follow your doctor’s instructions, and don’t hesitate to get in touch with them if you think something’s wrong. Many people struggle with mental health, and there’s no reason for it to hold you back from enjoying your study abroad experience, so please seek assistance if you think you may need it. For more tips, read this article on study abroad and depression.

Things Will Get Better if You Try

For me, there were always ups and downs but things got better. I got a few good nights’ sleep, and eventually the weather improved. We never really got hot water and eventually all 17 of us shared one bathroom, but we learned to play music in the shower so the cold wouldn’t bother us so much.

I still missed home and still spent some nights in watching TV or writing, but soon I fell so much in love with Havana that I was too busy to miss much of anything. And after that semester, I went on to study, work, or volunteer abroad six more times, including two more trips to Cuba. So I guess you could say I more than made the best of it!

Remember, study abroad isn’t perfect, and that’s okay. The important thing is to take care of yourself and to remember you’re not alone. Everyone has bad days, and culture shock is a well-documented phenomenon that even the most seasoned and culturally-aware travelers experience. The sooner you give yourself a break and try to figure out what’s at the root of your unease, the sooner you can come to terms with it and get back to enjoying your life-changing semester abroad.

Have a question? Ask other students on the study abroad forum.

Photo of Delia Harrington

Delia Harrington is a digital storyteller who has been working in international development since 2009. She was a study abroad student or in-country staff on eight different trips and was a study abroad administrator for three years. She is a documentary photographer and feminist activist, focusing on the intersections of travel, inequality, and gender-based violence.