3 Big Study Abroad Expectations (vs. What It's Really Like)

Think you know what a semester abroad will be like? Find out if your expectations meet reality from a student who studied abroad in Spain.

For many students, one of the most intriguing parts of college is the opportunity to study abroad. Whether it’s just a thought or a serious consideration, the gravity of leaving everything you know to try something new can be a tough concept to wrap your mind around. Like most decisions in life, you never know the outcome until you make it—and of course, the riskier the decision, the more extreme the consequences. But if you ask me, it’s well worth the risk to study abroad in college if you can.

Anyone who has studied abroad will tell you just how unsettling and challenging it can be, but also how fulfilling and rewarding it is. However, hearing someone else’s perspective and actually moving to a foreign country to learn are two completely different stories. I know firsthand that there is a lot that goes unsaid about what it takes to study abroad—I spent a semester in Barcelona during the fall of my junior year. Everyone has expectations, but living it completely changes them. If you are on the fence about studying abroad, take the following realities from my experience into consideration.

Expectation #1: You don’t have to “do” school

One of the most common misconceptions is that you don’t have to attend class or do schoolwork as you would at your home institution—that study abroad is just a months-long vacation with sightseeing and non-stop trips to neighboring countries. From the outside it might look like all fun and games, but in reality, expect to spend most of your day in class during the week. There are still attendance policies, homework assignments, tests you need to study for, and deadlines you need to meet. Depending on where you come from and where you go, you might even find yourself needing to dedicate more time to school than you’re used to. Also, the “campus” concept is not the same in a lot of other countries, so expect to factor in traveling around the city for classes throughout your day as well.

Keep in mind that it fully depends on which country you're moving to and what school you attend while you’re there, but try your best to avoid the mindset that you won’t need to put in the effort you currently do. There's still plenty of time for fun, of course, but balancing your time still applies.

Related: 9 Great Things You'll Gain From Studying Abroad

Expectation #2: Normal tasks will still be a breeze

It’s easy to overlook the challenges you might face abroad when all you can imagine is everything you’re excited about, but you will have your fair share of bad days too. It’s a constant pattern of trial and error, because at the end of the day, every little thing will be different. You’ll find yourself having to think much harder at all times. The simplest parts of your day-to-day will turn into tasks that require effort: think using retail stores as “one-stop shops” for all your shopping, getting the prescriptions your body needs, or simply getting from point A to point B. Many students don’t realize these things aren’t going to be easily (or at all) available abroad.

If you’re like me, you won’t know the native language, which adds an extra challenge to everything. What’s unique about humans though is there are other ways to get our points across. You’ll need to accept this challenge and show yourself what you’re capable of, which in my opinion is one the greatest things you can do. Inevitably, you won’t feel the level of comfort you do at home, but if you’re someone who can find the beauty and hidden messages in uncomfortable and unpredictable situations, you’ll do just fine.

Expectation #3: One semester is a long time

A semester, or roughly four to five months, might sound like a long time at first. You may question if you can handle being in a country (or on a continent) you’ve never been to before or if you can stand to be away from your family and friends at school for that long. Both of these things kept coming into question for me, but I focused on the bigger picture. Personally, I reminded myself that taking the opportunity to travel while continuing my degree was worth missing out on anything back home. There's a good chance you'll miss things on campus at times, but at the end of the day, the situation isn’t permanent, which is important to remember if you’re having trouble taking the leap. You’ll probably find yourself wishing time would slow down because you don’t want your semester abroad to end.

Related: The Top 5 Things to Consider Before Studying Abroad

Ready to study abroad?

These reminders aren’t to discourage you but to provide real-life advice in order to help you prepare for the unknown. Whether you’re unsure, certain, or somewhere in between about studying abroad, just trust your gut and don’t let fear stop you. This mix of emotions is all part of the process. It’s been nearly three years since I’ve returned from studying in Spain, and I can honestly say I still think about it every single day in the best way possible. Believe me when I say I felt every emotion to its extreme, which is what I’m most grateful for.

Make your study abroad trip a reality by checking out these 7 Scholarships to Help You Study Abroad.

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About Makenzie Smith

Makenzie Smith is a former Digital Advertising Associate for Carnegie Higher Education.

 

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