The Expat Education
Preparing for, adjusting to, and returning from university abroad.
So you’ve been accepted to study at a school abroad. Congratulations! Attending college or university overseas is a brave choice—and one being made by an increasing number of students all over the world. According to the latest Open Doors study by the Institute of International Education, almost 975,000 International students attended American colleges and universities in 2014-2015, an increase of 10% from the previous year. Other top destinations for international students are Canada, UK, Australia and China.
However unique your reasons, you are not alone in picking a school outside your home country. But as your departure date approaches, you may be feeling anxious about where the next year—and the three after that—will take you. Read on to learn more about some of the challenges and rewards you may face while pursuing an education abroad.
Getting Ready: What to Think About While You’re Still at Home
After the thrill of receiving your acceptance wears off, you may be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the decision you’ve made. Even if you’ve traveled before, this is likely to be the first time you’ve been separated from your home, family, friends for an extended period of time. While you will naturally have some nerves along with your anticipation, it’s healthy to seek resources that can prepare you for what’s ahead.
- Worried about a language difference?Taking a class in the language of the country you’re moving to could serve to improve your confidence and expose you to others who have either visited or lived in that country.
- Unsure of what to expect? Ask your school about the availability of student mentors you can get in touch with, a service offered to international students at many colleges and universities.
- What about staying in touch? Most travelers these days communicate using affordable Internet-based providers like Skype, WhatsApp and Viber. Research your options and make sure your family and friends understand the technology and know how to reach you.
Being There: Adapting to Your New Environment While Missing Home
For international students, even orientation may feel a little…disorienting. After getting familiar with the school’s culture and community, there is still the challenge of adapting to a whole new world beyond the campus. Even the most independent, adventurous students may feel homesick, culture shocked, and overwhelmed as they grapple with exchange rates, foreign slang, new transit systems and strange cuisine. Here are a few hurdles you’re likely to face when settling in to your school experience:
- Missing almost everything: You know the phrase, “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?” This is never truer than in the first stages of living far from home. However eager you were to get away, you may find yourself craving things about home that you didn’t even know you liked. The newness of your environment may make you long for your annoying little brother, your dad’s silly jokes, or that boring corner where you waited for the school bus. But be patient, and don’t hesitate to connect with loved ones back home during this difficult transition.
- Friendship without borders:Though you may feel anxious to find fellow countrymen who speak your language, it’s a good idea to seek out organisations or events where you can meet other international students who are newcomers to this country.
- Chronic confusion:There’s no way around it—combining your first year of college with immersion in a foreign culture is going to be confusing. From casual greetings to ordering coffee, there are a thousand opportunities each day to feel a bit defeated before you reach your first class. But take heart and be persistent: before you know it, you will find yourself giving directions or advice to others; when that happens, you’ll think back to your first days and be amazed at how far you have come.
- Conflicting feelings: As you begin to feel comfortable with your school life and your new country, it’s natural to feel exhilarated by all there is to discover. At the same time, you may also feel anxious about the people and places you’ve left behind. The expatriate experience can be as rewarding as it is unsettling—and this is normal. So don’t feel like you’re going crazy if you’re swinging between moods of elation and dejection.
Bonding with expatriates from different cultures has the dual benefit of easing your isolation and expanding your global perspective.
Going Home: It Will be Fun, But Home May Not Feel the Same
One unexpected side effect of living and studying abroad is that many students report feeling different when they return home. Although you are now more mature and have a broader worldview, you may also feel restless or even disappointed by the very things you’ve been missing. Here are are few points to keep in mind for when you do go back home:
- Adjust your expectations: After a year of expanding your comfort zone, the same old things may not feel comfortable in the same way. It may take days or even months for home to feel like home again, and even then you may find yourself feeling bored, frustrated, or impatient with how unchanged and familiar everything seems.
- Don’t forget to listen: As full as you are of the experiences you’ve had abroad and as much as you want to share them with your friends and family, remember that others may feel left behind by your international studies. Make sure to show as much interest and enthusiasm in their stories as you have for your travels.
- Stay connected: You've now gotten used to your new life, and it's already time to go home for the break. Leaving school at this point however, can give rise to a new sense of separation anxiety. After all, you worked past your fears and inexperience to build a new life in a foreign country: it’s normal to miss that and worry that time away will delay your progress. Like any college student, you’ll want to keep up with your friends from school and the activities (like language studies) that helped you assimilate. Relevant books or movies can also keep you immersed in the language and culture of the country that is now your second home.
One unexpected side effect of living and studying abroad is that many students report feeling different when they return home.
About the Author: Julia Clinger is an American writer who has lived in Germany and Switzerland. She is currently an advertising copywriter in Boston, Massachusetts.