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5 Things to Remember at the Start of your Study Abroad Experience

by Adrianna Waters
AIFS Study Abroad in London student poses at Platform 9 3/4 at the beginning of her study abroad experience.

It is the moment you have been waiting for: departure day. You haul your luggage to the airport and sit through a lengthy plane ride before arriving to your study abroad location, likely feeling both ecstatic and exhausted. For months, you have been looking forward to this trip: Googling tourist attractions, recommended restaurants, and scenic locations. You know, without a doubt, that this will be one of the best moments of your life. However, it does not seem like that at first. The city is beautiful, and the people seem nice, but you do not feel as if you truly belong yet. You begin to wonder if you will be the black sheep who does not love their study abroad experience like everyone else.

When you study abroad, the first few days—or even weeks—may feel like this. We hear about culture shock, but it is also important to remember that new experiences are difficult in general, never mind that they are occurring in a different country. I am studying abroad in London at Richmond University for six weeks this summer, and my first few days were very similar to what I described above. I was in awe of the city, but I was also at war with myself trying to juggle this new experience.

That being said, as I adjusted to the program, the transition period eased up. When talking to my friends, I realized I was not the only person who felt this way. It may seem as if everyone else is adjusting perfectly, but chances are, they are just pretending.

Before your study abroad experience begins, here are five things to keep in mind about the first few days:

1. It is okay if you do not make a bunch of new friends immediately.

My program is divided into three sessions: A, B, and C. Because I arrived for Sessions B and C, there were already some friend groups formed from session A. Yet, it was not always clear whether these friend groups were from session A or people who had just arrived for session B like me, and my brain was always telling me people who had arrived the same time as me were already meeting their life-long friends. Whether or not this was the case, I grew frustrated when the only friend I had made was my roommate.

It is possible you may have a similar experience, whether you arrive at a later time than some students or not. However, if you are constantly comparing yourself to every student you see, your study abroad experience will seem more like a competition than an opportunity. Trust me when I say that you will make new friends soon, even if it takes a few days. I am incredibly introverted and occasionally shy, and even I was okay. Once you start your classes and explore your city, you will make friends that feel like you have known them forever.

And of course, do not be afraid to introduce yourself to new students or sit by them during meals. My experience has been that most students are very understanding and kind; they want to meet new people as much as you do.

2. If you do not explore the city or go out the first or second night, that is 100% okay.

You may feel as if you are wasting your time abroad, especially if you are only there for a short session. However, the first few nights are a major adjustment period, and if you have not met many people yet, it can be overwhelming to imagine walking around the streets of your city at night.

While you should certainly find some evenings to sightsee or shop, do not feel inferior if you spend the first evening of classes watching Brooklyn 99 in your dorm room. Studying abroad is a mixture of going out of your comfort zone while also staying true to your emotions, and if your current feeling is that you need to stay in for the night, that is totally acceptable. Again, you may see that other students in your program are going out on the town or shopping every night, but remember that their experience is not your own.

3. You may miss your family immediately (or you may not). Both are okay.

Everyone will get homesick at some point during their study abroad experience. You may feel homesick at the beginning, or it may kick in later. If you do start to miss your family and hometown right away, do not panic or feel pathetic. With so many new aspects in a short period of time, it is normal to wish for the comfort of what is familiar. Whether the longing comes right when you step past TSA security or during your first hour in your new city, know that it does not make your weaker. In a few days, you will fall in love with your city, and while you may still miss your family, you will also be reveling in your new experiences.

Conversely, do not feel guilty if homesickness does not hit at first. For some people, the newness of studying abroad will prevent feelings of homesickness for a few days. If this is the case, do not feel as if you are betraying your family and friends back home. Keep in mind, though, that homesickness will happen, even if it does not occur until later in your program. If you are struggling, reach out to the AIFS staff. They are more than happy to provide you with helpful resources.

4. You will make mistakes, both big and small. If you can laugh about and learn from them, you will be much happier.

Being in a completely different area, you are going to make mistakes. It is part of the experience, and you can either let them weigh over your head, or you can let them go. Do not be afraid to ask anyone for help, such as friends/students on the program, staff/police/security, and most importantly, the AIFS staff. They are incredible. Staff members know your name, classes, even which floor you are living on. They are always there to either prevent a mistake or help you fix one.

In the event that you do mess up, laughing about it afterwards will make your study abroad experience much more joyful. If you are having trouble laughing about it, try your best to remember that even natives do dumb things sometimes. If it helps, think of the silly things you’ve done in your hometown. It happens to everyone.

To make all new study abroad students feel better, here is a personal anecdote of mine: my second day abroad, I was always flustered when ordering food, so I asked for more time when ordering what to drink only to eventually ask for tap water. It was embarrassing at the time, but now my roommate and I love to giggle about it.

5.It is okay to be a “tourist,” as long as you are being safe and conscientious.

You may hear that you should not act like a tourist, whether the advice comes from people back home, people abroad, or those gazillion blogs you read before you departed. Now, you should always be careful, safe, and aware of your surroundings. It is important to blend in somewhat to the culture by trying to talk a little quieter or walking quickly with the crowd. However, do not sacrifice pride at not being a tourist for getting the most out of your experience. Take as many pictures as you want. It may seem silly then, but you will want them to remember back on, especially if you are a picture person like me. Yes, you should stick away from using large selfie sticks or stopping traffic to pose, but there is nothing wrong with doing the typical tourist attractions like the London Eye, Eiffel Tower, etc. You are a tourist at first, so be one. Just make sure to be vigilant as well.

I hope these tips will help you adjust during your first few days studying abroad. While it is important to be prepared, it is just as important to go in with little expectations. That way, you can grow without the pressure of being or looking like what you think is the correct study abroad student. The only correct way to study abroad is your own way.

AIFS Study Abroad in London student poses at a traditional phonebooth at the beginning of her study abroad experience.
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