Three months of application forms, seven months of preparation, two weeks of goodbyes, and an eight hour plane journey had finally led to this moment. “Ok…so what now?” I found myself asking as I dragged two suitcases into my small and humid dorm room and closed the door.
Studying or working abroad for a year or semester is often presented as a once in a lifetime opportunity where you will make the most amazing friends, travel to beautiful cities and famous landmarks, and truly experience life as an independent traveller. The sheer competition of the application process in many universities, alongside the presence of travel grants from the UK government, forces us to feel grateful that we are lucky enough to be part of the ‘selected few.’ We are told that those who study abroad are more likely to achieve 1st class degrees, have greater job opportunities, and produce work of a much higher standard than their stay-at-home peers.
Before I was about to embark on nine months in Canada, I would spend hours scrolling through social media, looking at all of the amazing Instagram posts and Facebook photo albums from those who had spent the last year abroad. It seemed as though they had all had the best time.
Yet, for most, this isn't a true reflection of reality.
I started to think about how I had presented my year abroad to others. A quick scroll through my own social media would reveal that I had fallen into a trap similar to the accounts that I had followed before I left. I have only shown the positives; the amazing trips that I have been fortunate enough to go on, or the beautiful scenery I have encountered. I have not exposed the downsides to being away from home for a prolonged period of time in a foreign country.
I currently live in a house of 30 exchange students, so I am surrounded by young people who are living abroad from all across the world. I asked them to note down the aspects of their experience that they have found difficult. These were some their responses*:
“The time difference makes things more difficult because when it’s quiet here in the evenings and I want to call home, everyone else is already asleep.”- Susan
“Adapting to the new environment was tricky because the system and workload was so different from my home university in Japan. I also found it difficult to study in a different language as I was so used to learning and conversing in Japanese. It is things like that make me feel detached from my surroundings here.”- Felicity
“I had to push myself to get involved with complete strangers, which is very daunting.”- Benjamina
“Honestly, I feel homesick a lot of the time, especially when I see my friends back at home all hanging out together. I feel like I am missing out on lots of fun stuff back in the UK and often find myself spending more time thinking about home than I spend enjoying my time abroad.” - Alice
“Being away from my girlfriend is hard and has tested our relationship immensely. Long distance is tough!”- Jack
Now, the purpose of this article is not to dissuade people from going abroad; the purpose is actually the complete opposite. It is simply to provide some reassurance to those of you who are currently living away from home, and who feel you are struggling, that you are not an anomaly in the system. You are not alone in finding the process hard. You aren’t the only one that is experiencing homesickness, or having periods where you regret your decision to live in a foreign country. Most importantly, experiencing these feelings does not mean that you are failing.
Understanding how you can help to stop these emotions from ruining your experience of being abroad is really important. If you know you suffer from mental health problems that could impact your time abroad, always research mental health facilities available to you at your destination. Simultaneously, remember that you are still part of your home university and can easily access pre-existing support there too. Independent organisations such as ‘Mind’ or ‘ReThink’ are also more than happy to listen to your worries. Try to limit phone calls home to a regular schedule so that you aren’t too reliant on those back in the UK at the expense of you bonding with new friends abroad. However, at the same time be aware that your friends and family are there to support you and you should be open about how you feel to them. Push yourself to fill your week with activities so that you remain occupied. And, finally, don’t be disheartened if you’re finding it hard.
*some names have been changed in the interests of privacy