Overcome these common study abroad fears Pt. 1
You’re nervous about whether or not studying abroad is even a potential opportunity for you. Or perhaps you are completely set on taking off, but can’t seem to shake the inevitable fear of approaching an unknown. Well I am hear to tell you: do not let doubt or fear stand as obstacles in the way of pursuing this life-changing opportunity.
We all worry about studying abroad for a number of reasons. We harbor on potential pitfalls, disasters, or mishaps-- whether they are rational or not. The idea of leaving home, a literal comfort zone, seems almost impossible during the height of your college experience, when you find yourself in the thick of your academic life, and at the peak of your social life.
Like so many of my peers, I experienced these fears in full swing my first semester of Junior year. I remember how the topic of studying abroad permeated every space, every meal, and every conversation my friends and I shared. I felt badly for those around us who weren’t going abroad, especially for my family, as I can’t imagine how insufferable it must’ve been to listen to this topic over and over again.
Knowing my own fears prior to studying abroad, but curious about others’ experiences, I took to my social networks to inquire about what worries plagued people’s minds the most.
The responses came in like a wrecking ball, so I decided to compile them into a list and address each one in a 2 part article series so as to encourage discussion on each matter. I looked to my peers and to my own experiences to offer honest advice on how to combat, work through and overcome each fear.
Feel free to offer any additional input as you see fit in the comment section below.
Also, thank you to everyone who not only contributed their opinions and incredible advice to this article, but who inspired me to open up about my fears as well.
To begin, let’s take a look into one of the first fear students encounter when undergoing the study abroad process.
1. Setting yourself back academically.
When you begin your study abroad application process, you are primarily thinking in terms of academics. At this stage, many people worry that they cannot fit studying abroad in their schedules and that it will hinder them from graduating on time. Since studying abroad is primarily an academic experience, you want to be sure that you benefit from your classes, and work toward your ultimate goal of earning a degree. To ensure I offer you the best advice, I turned to a pro on study abroad to help unpack academic fears, and to offer helpful advice.
Emily Ostenson, the Study Abroad Advisor for France and Italy programs at the UMass Amherst International Programs Office, says that many students come in worrying whether not not they can fit studying abroad into their four years. She suggests a simple plan of action, saying, “Plan early! Talk to your academic advisors and study abroad advisors to find out your best time to go abroad and what types of programs offer your academic needs. Learn what types of classes are easier to take abroad and set those aside. Sometimes, students are ahead for academic requirements and have the luxury of going abroad to discover a culture, learn a language, or take enriching classes not offered at their home university. Remember that the experience is unique to you so consider all of your options: short or long-term program, study or internship or even service-learning.”
Taking a chance and studying abroad is worth it for some, but not for others. Once you visit your academic and study abroad advisors, it doesn’t hurt to contact past students who went through the program you are interested to find out more about how it affected their academic timeline once returning. In the case that studying abroad will hinder you from graduating on time, I want to offer a bit of advice shared by Juliana, a graduate who studied abroad in France during her junior year, who recommends going anyway. She recounts, “I had to stay in school one more year, but I left with a completed French minor. I also thought it was the best decision I ever made and I encourage everyone I meet to make the leap if they can. I loved studying abroad. It was one of the hardest years of my life personally, but the amount of growing I did while I was there was invaluable.”
In going abroad, you will certainly return with more knowledge and experience than you left with. You also have an incredibly unique experience that will benefit you not only personally, but professionally as well, for employers love to learn about study abroad experiences, admitting they build unique skills that translate well into the workforce.
Once your academic worries are put to rest, I want to assist in untangling one of the most popular fears about studying abroad, regarding the ability to afford it.
Allow me to let you in on a little secret. Studying abroad was the first time I ever created and managed a personal budget, let alone thought about one. This may sound embarrassing, but this is the case for many students going abroad. My approach to a budget was quite simple, and it definitely proved effective as my money not only lasted until the end of 4 months abroad in Siena, but through my additional 3 month internship in Sicily as well (barring the fact that I lived and ate pretty much for free with family).
I started out with my total. Now, I strive to be as honest with you all as possible, and to offer any help that I can: so I will disclose that I went abroad with $5,000 of spending money, which I was blessed to have received as a gift, and by combining some savings. In talking to others, I learned that many traveled abroad with a similar amount. Some definitely had more, and some definitely had less.
But whatever your total may be, the process is the same! Take that total, and divide it by the number of weeks you have left. Only allow yourself to spend that amount or less each week. (That left me comfortably at the beginning of my trip with a little over $275 to spend each week, as I initially intended on spending 18 weeks in Italy.) The less you spend that week, the more you can spend the next. It is like you are incentivizing yourself to spend less until you reach the end, where you can then splurge on gifts and expensive meals without as much worry!
Now in Italy, grocery shopping was very cost effective, especially as we cooked meals in groups. To have everyone pitch into the cost of making dinner also allows you to buy better quality meats and cheeses for dinner, and of course refreshments to go with dinner! Wine was extremely cheap, so much in fact that we considered spending 7 Euro on a bottle of wine as “splurging!” I also treated myself everyday to a caffe macchiato or a cappuccino and a pastry at a local bar, which would come out to 2 Euro or less. I stuck to my personal opinion that spending money on food and an experience was better than spending it on any item, which proved beneficial in the end, as I came home with more beautiful memories than trinkets.
Do not buy a rail pass. Everyone I talk to who studied abroad in Europe agrees that buying a Europass or anything is a waste of time and money. Especially since bus travel can be very cheap (see flixbus or megabus) and sometimes you can find train tickets for great prices as well. When deciding between taking the bus or the train, just ask yourself how much you are willing to spend on convenience, and how much your time is worth. It is truly up to personal opinion, as I have rode in a 16 hour bus to Budapest from Florence, and on the flip side rode the Frecciarossa from Florence to Milan. Both were unique experiences, both served well for different purposes. I also made it a point to fly with Vueling, Ryanair, and Easyjet, all three of which were very convenient, cheap, and as a freaked-out flyer-- I had no trouble flying in their jets.
Lastly, we always found that traveling in groups was cost effective; better yet, splitting an AirBnB was the best way to stay anywhere. Honestly, having the hostel experience was neat, but I believe they are becoming obsolete-- now you can stay in a beautiful downtown apartment, a beachside villa, or even on a boat, all at a comparable cost to a stale, overcrowded, or questionable hostel. I don’t mean to knock the experience of a hostel stay, I am just saying that if you are already traveling with a group, why not book a sometimes luxury, culturally-integrative stay at a low cost. The deals are out there, if you are diligent in searching.
My last tidbit of advice when it comes to finances may not apply to everyone, however when it came to how I accessed my finances abroad, here is the scoop. I didn’t open or use a credit card. That would have been disastrous on my end, but I know that some people are successful at using a credit card abroad, gaining points, and paying off their debts respectfully. But since I had this lump sum situation, I opened a new savings and debit account at a credit union, which was attached to my mother’s office, and put this lump into this credit union account. This worked for a number of reasons, primarily because credit unions have great student programs, and they did not charge international ATM fees. Also, the account was extremely secure, backed by Visa security measures, and if anything were to happen (which it did) the bank could shut my account down in minutes. It also helped having my mother attached to the account, just incase I did need an extra wire or incase she had to warn the bank to close off my account if I couldn’t. I didn’t use my normal bank because they are local and their international fees were a nightmare, along with their online banking system. With the credit union, their online banking feature was completely updated, so I could access my funds, make transfers, and review my payments at any time. But really, the no ATM fee thing-- huge.
And once you have your finances figured out, you may begin to feel a new wave of stress because...
3. You don’t speak your host country’s language!
Many people choose to go to a country where English isn’t the primary spoken language. Many look to avoid that altogether, seeing it as an issue. Don’t let your inability to speak a language hider you, especially if you are interested to learn. I spoke very little Italian when I arrived in January. When I left in early August, I was nearly fluent. This did not happen overnight, but it happened as my group and I pushed ourselves to learn a thing or two whenever we could.
Enroll in a language class in your host country when you are there. This is one of the most important things you could do if you want to learn to communicate. If your curriculum does not allow for that, then have no fear! Seek out a partner to hold a tandem exchange with, or better yet, a group of students looking to learn English in exchange for teaching you the host language. There were always flyers for tandem exchanges in local coffee shops, or on university bulletin boards. Before you leave for your country, I would suggest downloading the free mobile app Duolingo to practice. WordReferene is also a great dictionary tool and free mobile app. IMHO, Google Translate isn't too helpful most of the time, but it also isn’t a bad idea to download just in case, as we used this in a pinch during Italian class.
Outside of the classroom, there is a wealth of opportunities to learn your host country’s language, and that is where you are really going to learn everyday terms, phrases, and communication strategies. Force yourself to pay attention when out shopping, reading signs and listening to how clerks and customers interact. When you go to a restaraunt, practice using simple verb tenses to order food. Perhaps you venture out to see a movie in your host language, or a play? Pick up the local newspaper, or magazines at the nearest coffee shop. Just get chatting. If you make friends with local students, this is a great way to socialize, and to solidify a group of reliable tutors! Every time you step outside of your apartment, dorm or house, you can immerse yourself in the host language, and you will absorb it far quicker than you would think.
Also, ask a teacher or program director if there are volunteer opportunities, or a family looking to bring in an English tutor during the week for their child. When I was in Siena, I visited with a Sienese family once a week to eat dinner, tutor the daughter in English, and practice my Italian. I was set up with this family by my program director, and I am so thankful because I basically gained a second family while in Siena. I quickly began looking forward to my Thursday night meal-- hanging out with Laura and the family, and gaining courage to speak Italian more regularly. They always encouraged me to learn, to speak about things that I didn’t necessarily know how to articulate, not to mention they were always feeding me the best Sienese, home-cooked meals! I still keep in touch with them to this day, even exchanging holiday cards with them during Christmas!
Aside from this experience, I also volunteered at a Scuola Materna (a Kindergarten class) in the last few months of my abroad experience to teach English to the Italian bambini. The other girls in my program and I went once a week for an hour and played games with the Italian children, creating fun lesson plans to teach them simple English vocabulary-- they loved learning colors and animals! Teaching the children English by using Italian as a base was a great way to solidify our basic skills and to gain confidence speaking in large (but tiny) crowds! Because, let me tell you-- there is no greater way to learn a language than by having a 5 year old native speaker as a teacher who is unafraid to laugh at you when you make a mistake. Everytime we explained game rules or directions to them, we would do so in Italian, not without jumbling a few words or terms ourselves. Although it was terrifying considering we weren’t so experienced with the language, the children were so excited to correct and help us when we goofed. To be corrected by a 5 year old is more comical than being corrected by literally anyone else, and from this experience the three of us gained an even stronger grasp of the language.
All in all, I have found that locals are eager to help, and excited to see foreigners take an interest in their language. It is important to step out of your comfort zone when studying abroad in general, and the experience of learning the host country’s language is more than worth it. You just have to be savvy about the ways in which you pursue learning, and take advantage of every opportunity. If you are going to take the jump anyway, why not just make the leap?
I’ll leave you now with these 3 important points on the list. In Part 2 of this article, I will discuss 2 more common study abroad fears. I figured this is a lot of information to digest in one sitting, so I will check back in another post soon to wrap it all up.
Again, feel free to leave comments or suggestions expanding upon anything I’ve mentioned here!