That tingle that runs through your nerves that keeps you up the night before your flight. That sickly-sweet feeling in your stomach as your imagination runs through the infinite possibilities of what could lie on the road before you. The raised heartbeat that pumps just a little faster so it can keep up with the joyful anticipation racing through your blood. Excitement, nervousness, and anticipation for your study abroad trip all play a huge part in your experience overall. Before your trip even begins, they set the stage for how your program will go. Yet they seem like such minor details, kind of like throw away thoughts. I did not think much about them before my program. Obviously, I felt excited and nervous and every feeling that you will feel before your trip (I hardly slept the night before my flight) but I did not think much about how these feelings were affecting me or how they would affect my entire trip. However, they have a real power in shaping your experience. The difference between what your expectations for what your trip will look like, feel like, and be like and what your trip actually is can either make certain experiences amazing and life changing or awful and disappointing. It is kind of a hard concept to visualize so let me give you a personal example of a time my program exceeded my expectations.
I studied in Salamanca, Spain this past summer through a CGIS program and, overall, I am incredibly glad I did it because it was honestly a life changing experience. I went into the program with expectations that I would learn a lot and that I would grow as a person both of which definitely happened. I expected most of this personal growth would occur in my understanding of different cultures and identities and while that certainly happened, one area of growth that I did not expect was in my self-confidence. I’ve always been a fairly confident person but I had plenty of moments of self-doubt and insecurities especially in situations of stress. However, moving to a foreign country that speaks another language for a month-and-a-half really gave me a crash course in how to handle stressful and sometimes embarrassing situations. While it was a struggle at the beginning of the program, by the end I was much more calm and confident during difficult situations. For example, at the end of my stay, I ended up stranded in Madrid with a couple of friends after we missed our bus back to Salamanca. I feel if this had happened to me at the beginning of the summer I would have been a panicking mess but I actually remained pretty calm and collected. I did not realize how much I had changed in the moment but looking back now, my unexpected personal growth is apparent. So be prepared to change and grow in ways that you are not expecting at the beginning of your journey. Study abroad is full of amazing surprises.
Living in a foreign country is an exciting and amazing experience but it is not always sunshine and butterflies. Homesickness and culture shock are huge parts of your experience that kind of get glossed over when you are preparing for your trip. Being immersed in a culture and lifestyle that is not what you are used to can be stressful and exhausting but if you are prepared for it, you can navigate more easily through your feelings and grow as a person in the process.
Homesickness in particular is an awful feeling that unfortunately you will probably experience on your study abroad trip. I certainly felt homesick for parts of my time in Spain. It’s difficult when everyone you know and love is on the other side of an ocean. Personally, it felt like my support system had been strained and stretched and it chipped away at my mental health. Homesickness also manifests itself in different ways which I wish I had been prepared for when I started my program. For me, homesickness turned in to aggression towards my host country’s culture. Not everything in general, but in particular, I got really angry at the smallest differences because they were so close to being what I wanted from America but just slightly different. Some of the things I was annoyed by seem silly looking back now but at the time they were the banes of my existence. One example was ketchup. Every time I had to eat ketchup and it wasn’t the American Heinz that I wanted, I just felt more homesick. I had the same issue with chocolate- European chocolate was too sweet for me. I also always got hit by a wave of homesickness whenever I wanted something from America that did not exist in Spain, like a drinking fountain. (I legitimately hugged the first drinking fountain I saw when my plane home landed in Philadelphia.)
The oddest- and, admittedly, most petty- thing that irritated me because of my homesickness was British English. I never once got irritated by always hearing Spanish but I was always filled with irrational rage whenever I heard someone speaking English with a British accent. Now, looking back, I am fully aware that this was just a manifestation of me wanting to be home and hearing English that was not American just reminded me of the fact that I was not home and so I lashed out. The British people were in no way at fault here but in the moment, in my head, I was cursing every single human on the British Isles. The worst for me was in airports when there was an announcement in English and the automated voice was English. I got some strange looks in the airports as I grumbled at the ceiling every time a departure was announced. (I cheered on the plane when my pilot, with a very heavy Texan accent, introduced himself.)
Now, all of these examples seem really silly and petty and the point is that they are. They are completely irrational and ridiculous. Spain was incredible and, overall, I loved living in, learning about, and experiencing a new culture. The lesson of this blog post though is that homesickness can affect you in ways that you are not expecting at all and make you feel some really strange things. The best way I think to avoid this though is just to be prepared for it. Keep thinking to yourself, do I actually hate this pizza restaurant because it’s bad or because it’s not like my pizza? Push yourself to try the things that are different and you’ll probably discover that they aren’t half-bad. You can always get Pizza Hut when you get home.
Another important aspect of the study abroad experience that really is not discussed before the trip is the people that are also on your program. I made some lifelong friends on my trip that I still hang out with regularly but there are also people from my trip that I cross the street to avoid. Six weeks with the same people in situations that can at times be really stressful, pushes your ability to interact with people to its limits. Study abroad creates this really strange situation where you make friends really quickly because you will be spending a lot of time together with strangers. This can be a great thing because some of these friendships will blossom and last after your trip but it also can be difficult when you realize that your new friend and you are not really that compatible. This creates an awkward situation when you cannot easily escape interacting with them because you are on a program together in a foreign country but every time you interact with them it kills your mood. Unfortunately, I made a friend like this and by the end of my program I was ready to throw them into the Tormes (the river that ran through my host city, Salamanca). Now, I am not saying you are going to have the same experience but this is something important to keep in mind while on your program. There might be some people on your program that you do not like and that will affect your trip. My advice to you would be to just ignore them. You are part of a once-in-a-lifetime program, do not let some annoying people ruin your experience.
The bright side is that you are going to meet some incredible people on your program as well and, at least from my experience, the majority of the people on your program will probably be awesome. I met some incredible people with whom I explored my host city and traveled with during the weekends. They were honestly the best part of the entire program. Additionally, I met some amazing people in my host country. My host family, which consisted solely of a small sixty-seven-year-old Spanish woman, was incredible. I learned so much from her and she made me feel so welcomed in my temporary home. Also, I would highly recommend making friends with the locals too! I still talk to some of the people I became friends with from my classes and from exploring around town. Meeting new people and learning about them and their lives just adds so much to the experience, you will not regret it. It is also a great way to practice a language if your program focuses on a foreign language. So there might be some rotten apples in your program and just like anywhere else in life, you are going to have to interact with people you do not like, but, honestly, the world is full of incredible people and I promise you that you are going to meet some of them on your program because I certainly did.
For more information about the CGIS: Language and Culture in Salamanca, Spain program visit the MCompass program page.