This post was contributed by Jessica Sadlowski
“Odds I drop out of study abroad in the first two weeks?”
This is the first text message I sent my best friend after I arrived from chilly Toronto, Canada in Bristol, U.K for my semester abroad…only half-jokingly! I had already been considering dropping out, and it had only been a few hours. Can you believe that? Because to me, it seemed completely reasonable to give up on the first day. This was bizarre because quitting isn’t typical behavior for me.
Let me get real here before I get into the nitty gritty of this: I’ve dealt with a lot of depression and homesickness whenever I have been separated from my parents. Growing up, I rarely left home. Now that I’m in my 20s I’ve been craving independence and adventure, but I didn’t expect it to be this hard. I got the worst of it when I moved into my dorm in my first year of university, and I could hardly even leave my room. So, basically, depression and I have a little bit of a history.
I didn’t consider this before I left to study abroad, I thought I would be fine. But, I wasn’t fine. I struggled with my new apartment, my flatmates, trying to navigate my new city, and I even struggled with the sinks (two faucets, one hot and one cold… how does that even work!?). All I wanted was to be back at home. I yearned to warm my hands with mint tea, and reminisce about childhood memories with my family at a Tim Horton’s.
Uncertainty is not my best friend, and that is all that this experience was at first: a bunch of unknowns.
I struggled with homesickness.
This made me seriously consider dropping out for the first two weeks of my experience. I had a serious conversation with my mother about dropping out of study abroad, looked up how to drop out, how it would affect my path to graduation, and whether or not I would get any money back for tuition or my dorm. I was worried that my mother would be upset with me, for going through all this trouble only to be thinking about backing out of the whole thing. Luckily for me, and much to my relief, she understood how difficult it was to move away from home to the other side of the pond. She did it herself when she was in her 20s and moved from Poland to Canada, so she had felt all of the same feelings before.
For those first two weeks, before I talked to someone about it, my journal was littered with the phrase “If I drop out…” followed by all the possibilities. This was a manifestation of my depression, and it was rearing its ugly head.
I was feeling deeply negative, but it got better!
I don’t know quite what happened about three weeks into my exchange, but it felt like a switch was flicked, and I learned how to manage these feelings better than simply calling it “quits.” So, even though I had all of these doubts running through my mind, I started to manage my feelings and found ways to ease my transition and fully adjust. Learning how to manage my feelings, and deciding to stick it out for better or for worse was super liberating. Those thoughts of “Is this even worth it?” turned into ” This is so worth it!”
Now, don’t get me wrong, it still wasn’t a walk in the park. Keeping my homesickness at bay was a lot of work initially, but now it’s almost like second nature! I do still have my moments where I long for my mom’s homemade perogies (delicious!), but it’s not as intense as it once was. I learned a few tips and tricks along the way that eased my transition into a true study abroader. If you’re struggling like I was, maybe they can help you out too!
Go to international events and party with other international students.
Yeah, this sounds like it should be pretty obvious. In fact, all of my advice seems like its common sense, but I didn’t realize I needed this until I did. So, let me be blatantly obvious here, okay?
If you’re embarking on a semester abroad, it is quite common that your school has a club that runs events for exchange students. In the U.K. and at my host university, it is called the Erasmus Student Network (ESN). Erasmus is European and the best way to meet people while studying abroad in Europe in general. ESN runs pub nights, walking tours, trivia nights… you name it, they run it! It was a great opportunity to A) leave my room and B) talk to someone, anyone, and hopefully make a few new friends while I’m at it. Odds are you’re not the only one feeling lonely, might as well make other lonely friends to get yourselves out of the funk.
This emphasizes the importance of my next point:
Avoid advertising for a “missed connection” on Craigslist: keep in touch!
It’s easy to say “Hey, what’s up?” to someone you meet in a pub, have a great conversation, and go your separate ways. But, it’s way harder to actually keep in touch with them. Personally, I have a hard time reaching out to people I’ve just met in an effort to be their friend. What can I say? I’m human, and I fear rejection.
But believe me, chances are those students you met at the pub probably want to be friends too. If you message them, they’ll probably be grateful that you did, and you could kick-start a lifelong friendship. Everyone wants more friends! In fact, I think I’ve made most of my friends by taking a chance and saying to them:
“Hey, do you have Facebook? You should add me!”
I met a lot of people at orientation. And when I say “a lot,” I truly mean a lot of people. I felt this mounting pressure to make friends, but I felt like it was impossible to know who wanted to be friends with me and who was a good friendship match for me. Looking at someone and thinking “They’re really cool!” almost made the whole situation more intimidating, and I was afraid to approach anyone in the room.
But, then just I got out of my head. Once I started to talk to the other students and learn about them, their home universities, and their programs…it got easier!
I was less afraid to approach someone new.
And I made a point of finding a way to keep in touch, of course!
If sending a text or message is still a little too much for you, no worries. I’ve made a habit of seeking out the people I meet on Facebook and adding them. That way, I can interact with their posts, and always have the option of messaging them to say hi. It’s a low-stress way to maintain friendships while abroad, and see what others are up to.
Get to know your roommates!
Yep, this also seems pretty obvious, but it still needs to be said. You’re going to be living with these people for the next few months! You share bathrooms, and the kitchen and living area. They’re your foreseeable future, so wouldn’t it be great to get to know them? And wouldn’t it be even better to be friends?
It is pretty intimidating to move into a new apartment when everyone else already knows each other. I moved into my flat halfway through the school year, and I wasn’t really sure how I would fit into the established dynamic of my flatmates. When I arrived in Bristol and got into the cab to my building, the cab driver actually got lost, which I took as a sign of impending doom (I was running low on sleep so everything felt extra dramatic to me).
We drove around in circles for 15 minutes before we found our way to the building. This did NOT help my nerves at all!
I was so nervous about meeting my flatmates.
I wanted to make a good impression because I didn’t know anyone in Bristol. Yup, and we all know that starting off on the wrong foot with my flatmates would be truly awful. Not to mention the fact that my first interaction with my flatmates included me bursting into the flat with all of my luggage, exhausted from 16+ hours of travelling, and completely disoriented.
In fact, I think the first thing I did was apologize for being noisy coming in (In true Canadian fashion!). I really was intimidated by them, even though they’re just students like me. But all it took was an “It’s so weird that you drive on the other side of the road!” and suddenly everything was way less intimidating.
Your roommates are probably just as curious about you and where you come from as you are of them. So, hang out with them, get to know them, and ask plenty of questions. They can show you all the places to get the cheapest groceries, the best public bathrooms, and the best place for a late-night slice of pizza.
You’re in a brand-new country! Explore and try something new!
This is my best piece of advice that I have to give. Keep up with school-work, clubs and sports, hang out with friends, book trips! Keeping busy is a great way – and probably the only way – to keep your mind off of missing home. Sitting and focusing on how sad you are is only going to make you sadder.
Besides, it’s really great to know that you’ve got a plan and something to do, rather than spending half the day in bed on Instagram experiencing FOMO because you couldn’t go out with your friends from home last night. You’ve booked a flight to Paris next weekend, and they haven’t!
So, make the most of your experience abroad with the highs and the lows. It’s a financial investment that should ultimately give you a life-changing experience if you let it. It’s a once in a lifetime experience, and not many people can say that they just “popped over to Prague!” when someone asks how their weekend was.
And if it really does come to it, there’s no shame in going back home… but looking back at my experience, I am thankful that I stuck it out!
Regardless, you do you!
Meet Jessica: “In true Canadian fashion, Tim Hortons runs through my veins. I love reading and travelling, but most of all getting 8+ hours of sleep a night because I’m secretly a grandma. Technically I’m lactose intolerant, but I won’t let that stop me from consuming all the ice cream I can get my hands on.” Stay updated with Jessica on Instagram.
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