When I studied abroad in Tokyo, Japan, during the fall semester of my junior year, I was so excited to escape the small liberal arts bubble I had been living in for the past two years. I was ready to make my own adventures and memories in a city completely different from Los Angeles. Don’t get me wrong, the past two years at my home college weren’t particularly bad—but studying abroad was the experience I had been waiting for since I started applying to college.
Leading up to the day I took off for Japan, I carefully researched what to bring and what to expect from the people around me while brushing up on my Japanese so I'd feel prepared entering my program. While I didn’t expect to have the perfect semester, I definitely romanticized my experience from my own excitement and wanderlust desires. However, there are a few problems students may encounter while they’re abroad, from feeling homesick to forgetting about the “study” part of their trip. While no semester abroad (or at home) may be perfect, there are always ways to turn a bad situation into a positive one.
1. Feeling homesick
In a study about the effects of study abroad on mental health, about half of the respondents said they were homesick at one point during their program. While homesickness may increase your urge to call home more often or look at what your family and friends are up to online, this only detracts from your experience and can cause you to withdraw from your new community. In order to fight homesickness, try getting involved with new activities, calling home just once a week or once every other week, and limiting your time on social media.
2. Not adapting quickly to the local language
For many students, studying abroad is the first time they're completely immersed in a foreign language. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed and like you’re not adapting to the language as quickly as you hoped. Other than having patience and confidence, there are a few things you can do to speed things up. For starters, a major learning block is relying on English too much. For this reason, students should attempt to use as little English as possible, including in their free time (e.g., looking on social media).
3. Finding food that you like
During my program, one person had so much trouble finding food that his stomach could digest that he had to switch housing so he could live with a family that could accommodate his dietary needs. Because everyone’s food sensitivity is different, it’s wise to research the cuisine ahead of time and ask your study abroad program if you’re concerned about your diet. If you’re just a picky eater, while it may be tempting to find the nearest McDonald’s or American-style restaurant, you should try as much of the local food as possible. But never be afraid to ask what food is made of if you’re weary that it might upset your stomach.
4. Finding a group to hang out with
Although there are times when exploring by yourself is fun, making memories with a group you feel comfortable with is equally rewarding. Personally, I found it a little difficult to find a big group to hang out with, as many members of my program were into drastically different things. I’m better at getting to know people in a more intimate setting rather than in a group setting, so I tried to hang out with people one on one. I also made friends outside my study abroad community via other activities. Finding people to hang out with shouldn’t be limited to your study abroad program—just remember to be smart and keep safety in mind like you would back home.
5. Feeling spiritually dry
It’s normal to feel lost or that your emotional needs aren’t being met when you're in a new community. Even traveling on a life-changing trip can make you feel burnt out. If you find yourself burying yourself in your phone or not enjoying your outings much, it may be time for a day of rest. Taking care of yourself is never a waste of your time. During these times, it’s important to reach out to a trusted friend or family member for support. Students should also seek counseling if they feel they will benefit from it.
6. Lack of time management
Once you start getting into a routine during study abroad, it’s easy to feel like you’re running out of time. Between exploring new places, going to school, and attending club meetings, sometimes you feel that you just don’t have enough energy or time to get everything done. A way to find balance is to make a weekly schedule to visualize all your commitments. If there’s something you need to take out because you feel that it’s making you overly stressed, take it out! Also, be aware that busyness isn’t something to glorify just because you’re in an exciting, new place—it’s okay to spend time with yourself and unwind.
Related: Video: Time Management Tips
7. Poor grades
With the excitement of study abroad, we often forget that we’re students first and tend to put classes and grades at the end of our to-do list. For me, because classes were significantly easier than on my home campus, it was tempting to put off assignments so I could explore instead. I rationalized that because it was easier, I could do it last minute and it wouldn’t hurt my grades. Some people even got so caught up in activities that they failed to attend class. In order to get good grades without sacrificing fun, try to do your assignments as soon as they’re assigned (or at least start them). In addition, resist the urge to miss class, as absences add up and can affect your grades—and maybe even your visa.
8. Running out of money
Souvenirs, transportation, event tickets—there are just so many things to buy while abroad! Because most students won’t be able to have a part-time job in their new city, running out of money is a classic problem. A trick to avoid overspending is to leave your debit or credit card at home and only bring a limited amount of cash when you go out. There are also many money-tracking apps you can download on your phone to really see where your money is going.
9. Not being able to fit everything you bought in your suitcase
As someone who usually has an overweight suitcase when she travels, this problem was something I definitely ran into. There are a few options: Leave stuff you can’t take with a friend, ship your things home, or buy a new suitcase. Students should research how much shipping costs versus how much their airline will charge for overweight suitcases so they can choose the most economic option.
10. Not wanting to go home
Despite all the struggles you may encounter, not wanting to go home is common for students at the end of their study abroad experience. Although leaving your new community behind is hard, this gives you incentive to work even harder in the language or continue the relationships you started during your time abroad so you can someday return and have an even better experience.
Studying abroad doesn’t always come easy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort. You can overcome common hurdles and have an amazing experience with a little mindfulness and planning. Use this as a guide and take things as they come each day. Safe travels!
Find more advice on studying abroad and other extracurricular opportunities in our Student Life section.