Last Updated on June 8, 2023 by Brook Henderson
There are a lot of different aspects of a study abroad experience: education, culture, the wonders of the country you’re in, and — throughout all of these opportunities — the friends you experience things with. Being in a foreign country can be intimidating, especially when you don’t know anyone yet and you identify as an introvert.
I remember making small talk with others on the airport shuttle upon first arriving abroad. I can admit to a period of minor panic at this point. I feel like meeting new people can turn into somewhat of an elevator pitch, with the goal being to get them intrigued about you as a person, as a potential member of the buddy system that’s instinctual in an unfamiliar environment.
While transitioning into life in South Africa, the first outing someone on my program organized was a hike up Stellenbosch Mountain. Whether or not it was intended, everyone got an invitation somewhere down the grapevine. At the time, I hadn’t even talked to most of these people, let alone knew their names.
Yet somehow by the end of my program I would come to know almost all of them. I might not know their life story or much beyond their major and career goals from their life back home, but I knew who would be the best person to ask to go horseback riding, who would always be up for a hike, who had been looking around at nearby activities and was already raring to go. I knew who would be up for a quiet night in town trying out a new restaurant, who would know when the next World Cup game was, and who was playing in it.
Over time, our social groups got smaller, and stronger bonds grew. The friendships I made during my study abroad experience in Stellenbosch were fast and strong, and I will never forget the people who shared these life experiences with me. They are also much different from the ones I’ve spent years making here in the United States, the ones that are practically family.
Now, as an introvert, I often felt this constant socialization to be a bit exhausting. It was lovely to meet so many people and have them play a major role in my experience, but it was sometimes draining. It was also difficult to do everything I wanted to do in South Africa and balance these goals with the school work to be done, the sleep my body required, and — as an introvert — the solitude that I just needed every now and again.
Meeting that last requirement of taking some time for yourself doesn’t have to hinder your study abroad experience. On the contrary, I would say that having those moments alone to sit and reflect made my experiences all that more impactful.
That being said, I came up with a couple of simple tricks for introverts like me. The may seem obvious, but these tips gave me the ability to take time away from the social crowd while still getting to experience everything that my study abroad program had to offer.
Here are 3 tips for introverts abroad:
1. Go to the social events, but find the people hanging on the outside.
Whether they’re from the program itself, your fellow students abroad, or sponsored by your overseas university, you can bet that there are plenty of opportunities available to you and everyone else there. It can get a bit crowded, but there will always be other students that aren’t fond of big groups either. If it’s toward the beginning of your trip, and even if it’s not, this is a great chance to find others with less extroverted personalities to hang out with, and to plan future expeditions with. Personally, I tended to hang around the food table until someone started up a conversation, so don’t be afraid to be or engage with that person; they’re likely feeling just as awkward on how to approach the situation.
As time goes on, you learn more about people’s personalities and interests and form groups based on them. That’s natural, and finding a group that you spend a majority of your time with can lead to strong friendships and a comforting sense of belonging throughout your stay. However, don’t be afraid to branch out to other groups. Meeting new people and getting to know them is part of studying abroad, and you can spend time with as many or as few people as you’d like throughout the experience.
2. Utilize the time you spend on your assignments as alone time.
Working on assignments for school is a great time to take a break from the group for a while and still be productively engaged in your study abroad program. The classes you take abroad likely had an impact on your decision-making process, so it’s important to give them the time and focus they deserve. Whether it’s holing up in your room with a cup of the local coffee or sneaking off to a favorite study spot in town, it’s an escape from the social noise, which also allows you to focus on something important.
3. Take the road less traveled.
It’s easy to go along with everyone else, to get caught up in the crowd. But some of my favorite experiences from studying abroad were when I stayed back, took a slightly different route, and was able to explore what was around me without the distraction or pressure of my peers. My inner photographer went crazy and I got to appreciate my surroundings at the highest level.
Traveling alone is another option if you’re in a place that you feel comfortable. It’s important to place your safety first, but making plans for going out on your own is another method of exploring the country, meeting the locals, and experiencing the culture — without the obvious tourist label that can easily be attached to large groups.
Balance is key, and it’s based on your own priorities while abroad. There are a ton of opportunities, but it’s important to keep in mind what’s important to you, and knowing when it’s too much. The goal is to stay engaged without getting overwhelmed. I encourage you to find your own methods and to be aware of what’s going on with you and your surroundings.
Being an introvert doesn’t have to have a negative impact on your study abroad, regardless of the indubitable role other people play in it. The crucial thing is being able to recognize how you personally can get the most out of any experience. Allowing yourself time alone during or after study abroad can help process the experience, and help you get the most out of it that you can. Going out and doing everything you can is the start of this. So don’t be afraid to go outside of your comfort zone, and jump.
This post was contributed by Brooklyn Henderson, an AIFS Alumni Ambassador from the Iowa State University who spent a summer studying abroad in Stellenbosch, South Africa.