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Emotional Planning for Studying Abroad

Emotional Planning for Studying Abroad

Emotional Prep 101

For many university students, a highlight of the college years is the chance to live abroad for a semester – or even a year – and experience life and school in a completely new culture, and often, a new language. Some students carefully plan their studies around being able to manage a semester abroad, knowing that it’s something they’ve always wanted to do. Others may have less conviction, but they decide it’s an adventure and risk worth taking.  Regardless of how they made the decision, once students show up in their host country, they’re all in the same boat. However, exactly how those students will fare in the months ahead of them can depend in large part on how prepared they were for their experience, many aspects of which can come as a shock.

As a university counselor at Bocconi University and as a collaborator with IES Study Abroad (both in Milan), I see a wide range of university students, some who are studying in Milan for full degrees and others who are in Milan only for a semester exchange from their “home” university.  In many ways, their presenting issues only confirm what seems to be an international reality in the world of mental health right now: that more people than ever – especially teen-agers and young adults – are suffering from mild to severe anxiety. Even students without pre-existing mental health diagnoses –  and including those with a history of international moves with their families – are prone to experience unusually high levels of stress and anxiety when finding themselves thousands of miles from home, going it alone in foreign territory for the first time.

While students expect excitement, adventure and newness when going abroad, what is often overlooked is just how hard it can be to fill their free time. Most study abroad programs factor in a lot of down time for culture, travel and experiences outside of classroom and study time. And to this point, there is whether a student will know anyone else at the outset or if they have one or more friends doing the program with them. This can make a significant difference for many students, and although there are pros and cons to both scenarios, it is something to consider. It can also be worth asking the program coordinators what the breakdown is of students who are coming from the same university vs. those who are coming alone, and if there is a way for the “solo” students to connect with one another before the program starts.

Study abroad programs come in a variety of sizes, but for the most part, the pool from which to make friends is extremely small compared to students’ home universities.  For some, friendships are made easily, quickly eliminating the issue of, “Who will I eat meals with? Who will I explore with?  Who will I take all my great trips with?” For others, friendships within the program group can be harder to forge. This often creates anxiety about the possibility of too much time alone in a new country.  And although many students would be eager to meet students outside their program, communicating in a foreign language they barely speak means the possibility of friendships with locals becomes even more of a challenge.

Returning to the great expectations students have before going abroad, I often hear how much pressure students put on themselves not only to maximize, but to love, every moment of the experience. This is especially true for students who have worked and planned for a long time to make it happen. They feel guilty and stressed over not loving every minute the way they expected and hoped to. They hesitate to tell friends and family back home that they’re having a hard time, that in some ways, they just want to be back at their university. They knew it would be hard, but not this hard. 

The reality is that the vast majority of students who study abroad do experience some feelings of anxiety, loneliness and homesickness, and the more that students expect these “growing pains,” the less likely they are to be derailed by them. I’ve often wished that study abroad offices in universities would help students better understand some of the common feelings and experiences when going abroad that can leave students thinking they’ve blown it somehow or that they “aren’t doing it right,” when in fact most of the time what they’re going through is completely normal. I’ve seen time and again that the big gap between expectations and reality usually results in many students feeling underprepared, anxious and disappointed. 

Being prepared for the emotional hurdles of studying abroad doesn’t mean it’s possible to entirely avoid them, but it can reduce their negative impact.  So before the adventure actually begins, here are some tips:

1. Talk with former program participants to hear about their experiences and ask questions.

2. Request as much information as possible from the program coordinator about scheduled events, class schedules and unscheduled/free time.

3. Ask yourself, how comfortable are you doing things alone? Do you need constant companionship or can you fairly happily spend a day – or two – on your own?

4. What’s your biggest fear about being abroad? How will you plan for it?

5. If you already struggle with anxiety and suffer from panic attacks, are you prepared? If you’re on medication, will you have a full supply for the semester? Will you be able to call friends and family regularly, keeping in mind the time difference? Do you know if local professional help is available through the program?

6. Remember that much of what makes study abroad great in the long run, feels hard in the doing!

Article by Karen Rigatti for Easy Milano

Karen Rigatti is an American living in Milan since 2008. She is a Certified Professional Counselor, working with expats (individuals, couples and young adults), helping them develop more effective communication and coping strategies, to better manage interpersonal challenges and embrace the changes in their lives. She is a member of the American Counseling Association and AssoCounseling, in Italy and she also works as a Student Counselor at Bocconi University in the Department of Campus Life – Counseling & Self-Empowerment, counseling students ranging from first-year Bachelors up through PhDs on a wide variety of academic, adjustment and interpersonal issues. Additionally, she works at IES Study Abroad supporting their US exchange students. 


See other articles on cultural adjustment and expat life by Karen Rigatti.

Featured image by Tim Gouw

Easy Milano

Easy Milano is the online publication for the international community of Milan. We offer practical tips, key information and essential insights about living and working in Italy. Easy Milano has been assisting English speaking expats in Milan since 1999.
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