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When people think of study abroad, images of smiling college students standing in front of amazing structures or famous landscapes is often what comes to mind. It is no secret that study abroad is advertised as the most exciting and life changing experience a student can have, and as someone who has participated in two study abroad opportunities at the University of Michigan, I can truthfully say that my time studying abroad has had a profound positive effect on my life. That being said, study abroad was also one of the most lonely times in my life, as well as a time when I struggled the most with mental health issues. Participating in a study abroad opportunity is, by nature, a very lonely experience. Spending time in a foreign country, where you don’t know anyone and where the culture in unfamiliar to you, would make even the most extroverted person feel a bit isolated. But the sooner we address the inherent loneliness that comes with living in a foreign country, the sooner we can help students fully appreciate their time studying abroad.
I studied abroad the summer after my Freshman year as well as my entire Junior year, both times in China. During these times, I witnessed myself grow and mature in a way that I don’t believe would have been possible if I had stayed stateside. After returning home from one of my study abroad experiences, my mom told me she had noticed that I was more mature, more assertive, and more independent that I had been before leaving. This is true; I have found that things that used to make me nervous, such as asking questions in big lectures and advocating for myself in social situations, were no longer scary to me. After studying abroad, I am much more willing to take risks, I am more confident, and I am less intimidated by meeting new people. I believe that these changes occurred because for a period of time, I had to adjust to a completely new landscape and a new culture by myself. The fact that I was able to do this has given me a deep sense of self fulfillment and self worth.
But the rough times were just that– really, really rough. I have always struggled with unexplainable feelings of nervousness, but I found that studying abroad in China exacerbated these feelings. Somedays, I found myself randomly waking up with an inexplicable feeling of dread at three in the morning. Other times, I would have to be alone and take a long walk in order to calm myself down and convince myself that my life wasn’t falling apart. I also dealt with extreme feelings of loneliness and homesickness, especially during Christmas break. In fact, I spent most of Christmas day crying, alone in my dorm room. I felt helplessly alone, and wrong for feeling alone during a time in my life when I should have been happy.
I thought that study abroad was supposed to be the best time of my life. I thought that it would be a magical experience, and that my life would be a 24/7 adventure. Although these expectations are normal for study abroad, they can often lead students to feel alone when they do experience harder times. Because if everyone else is pretending that they aren’t facing any problems, then no one will feel comfortable enough to confront these issues. And the idea that students must live and breath the culture in which they are experiencing can be damaging as well. Of course students studying abroad should make an effort to get to know the local culture, but buying a McDonald's sandwich when one is feeling homesick shouldn’t be looked down upon. In fact, this and other examples should be considered regular coping behavior for students adjusting to culture shock. But instead I found myself shamed for the small ways I participated in American culture while abroad.
Upon returning home, though, I began to realize just how normal this issues I faced really are. In fact, I would be more confused by a person who lives abroad for an extended period of time and faces no such mental or emotional issues. It’s perfectly natural for a person living in a country and culture that is foreign to them, and far away from friends and family, to face the same type of problems that I faced. Add to that the pressure to always be having a good time, and you will most likely end up with a group of students unable to adjust to the unique issues they will face while abroad. Which, to me, makes it more bewildering why international education departments aren’t better equipped to deal with mental health problems. While I was abroad, I faced an education system with few on staff who could speak English, and no resources for dealing with homesickness, or any other type of emotional support. It seemed as if the system didn’t want students to believe that there could be a negative side to studying abroad. I’m sure that not all international education departments are like this, but the fact that some are is disconcerting.
It's important that students feel supported during these special times. Because issues surrounding mental health are so intrinsic to living abroad, I argue that it should be a priority for international education departments to have resources in place to deal with them. Study abroad offices both at home and on location need to be aware of the mental health challenges their students could face, and should be equipped with resources to help. For example, I know for myself, having someone I could talk to about my problems wouldn’t have made them go away, but would have helped me deal with them in a much more productive way. Also locating resources for students to use when they are feeling homesick, such as familiar foods and media, may also help students during rough periods in their stay. When I was in China, I would find comfort in watching an American movie on Chinese Youtube when I was especially homesick. I would have really appreciated an American movie night I could have participated in with my fellow study abroad students, as a way to connect and deal with our homesickness. I believe that sometimes, students who are studying abroad should be able to do the things they would do if they were back home and international education departments should encourage that.
We won’t ever be able to have a picture-perfect study abroad experience, but by identifying the common issues students abroad face, we can make help make these experiences more healthy and understanding. There are lots of reasons why to study abroad: in order to gain independence, experience in a global setting, or a deeper understanding of cultural differences. A bad experience abroad can deter someone from traveling in the future, while if a student feels supported during their study abroad experience, this can foster a love of travel that can last a lifetime.