Planning to study abroad and wondering if it’s normal to feel nervous? You’re in the right place!
Yes, it is completely normal to be scared or anxious to study abroad. Moving to a new country can be an intimidating but rewarding thing to do, so it’s perfectly fine if it feels like a big step! Sometimes taking big steps forward in life is intimidating.
Think back to how you felt the last night before you went to high school or college. You were probably a mix of nervous and excited, which is how I felt right before I studied abroad.
I faced my fears and boarded the plane anyway – both times! – and I’m so grateful that I did. I learned so much about myself while studying abroad in both Guatemala and Jordan. I improved my Spanish and Arabic skills, connected with my host families, and made lifelong memories. These trips also cemented my lifelong love of travel.
After studying abroad in college, I continued to travel as an adult to a variety of destinations. Then, in 2020, I moved to Ireland. In this post, I’m including insights from my experience studying abroad and my reflections on moving abroad as an expat. I hope this helps you to feel more confident in your ability to study abroad, even if you’re scared.
Tips for people who are scared to study abroad
If you’re feeling nervous to study abroad, here are some tips that might help. Beyond these tips, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. Almost everyone I know felt nervous before they went abroad, but they still had a wonderful experience.
Mentally prepare before going abroad
If you’re reading this a few days or weeks before your program starts, start spending some time mentally preparing to study abroad. The more you can do now to build healthy habits and learn about common challenges of moving abroad, the easier a time you’ll have adjusting.
Work to cultivate a growth mindset, one where you’re focused on continuous improvement. Prepare yourself for a few months of trying on a new travel skin, one where you’re living abroad and encountering lots of new situations. Prepare yourself to meet new people, push yourself outside your comfort zone, and learn about a new culture.
Prepare for jet lag
Jet lag is the term for the particular exhaustion and sleep disruption you feel after long flights across multiple time zones. When you fly west, you’ll wake up early in the mornings and have a hard time staying up to an acceptable bedtime. Travelers who fly east will experience the opposite, and it can be rather challenging to get out of bed in the morning.
There’s not a ton that you can do to prevent jet lag, but here are some things that I think help:
- Do not drink alcohol and limit caffeine before your flight
- Sleep as much as you can on the plane
- Eat light, healthy meals that won’t upset your stomach
- After you arrive, eat meals on the schedule of the new time zone
- If you can, take your first day or two easy to give your body a chance to adjust to the new time zone
- Spend as much time in direct sunlight as possible during the day. The sun signals to your brain that it’s time to be awake.
Learn about culture shock
Culture shock can rock even the most experienced traveler, and it can sometimes be hard to spot. You may experience culture shock when you go abroad, or it could hit you when you return home (and some people may experience it more than once).
Essentially, culture shock is negative feelings about a culture or group of people that you experience while traveling. For a lot of people, it feels like anger. Aspects of the culture or social norms may start to irritate you. These irritants can be small things, like the way that people board trains, the greetings people use, or even just the food.
Culture shock is your brain’s way of protecting you. Your mind is trying to keep you from feeling negative social feelings, like being left out, by making the new culture seem irritating and wrong. The thing is, the threats aren’t really as serious as they feel. Focus on trying to calm this part of your mind and do what you can to remind yourself that you’re safe, you’re learning, and that these feelings will pass.
How to deal with culture shock
My tip: if you ever find yourself feeling irritable for seemingly no reason while traveling, it could well be culture shock. Especially if it follows a semi-euphoric honeymoon period. Culture shock is disorienting, upsetting, and can make it harder for you to adjust to your surroundings. If you experience culture shock, be patient with yourself.
For most people, culture shock will last a few days to a few weeks. Be patient, and try to refrain from making sweeping generalizations about the country you’re in or its people. If culture shock hits when you return home, try to do a few activities that remind you of being abroad to share the experience with your friends and family.
Culture shock is unpleasant and unwanted, but it happens to travelers all of the time. Be kind to yourself and others, and journal about your feelings if you can. It will pass.
Know that you can feel homesick and still be OK
As someone who studied abroad twice and has since moved abroad, I can promise you this: like culture shock, homesickness will pass. There’s nothing wrong or immature about feeling homesick! If homesickness strikes, there are some things that you can do to respond.
When I’m feeling a particularly strong bout of homesickness, here’s what I do:
- I don’t judge my feelings. I let myself feel homesick.
- I seek out comfort items that remind me of home. I’m from the US, so for me that includes chain restaurants like Starbucks or McDonalds and foods like (veggie) burgers and fries.
- I try to spend some time in nature.
- I make a list of everything I love about the place I’m visiting. It could be little things like the way the light hits a certain part of my room or the way that people say, “Good morning.” Those little things are some of the most grounding.
- I move my body and eat a filling, healthy meal. Although living abroad is different from traveling, you’ll still want to focus on staying healthy.
Be as patient with yourself as possible
Studying abroad requires a lot of patience. You’ll need to be patient with others, sure, but also with yourself. You’re going into a new environment where you don’t know all of the rules and you’re trying lots of new activities and foods for the first time. No matter how hard you try, you’re not going to be perfect. So, be gentle and patient with yourself.
Language barriers are simply opportunities to practice
If you’re studying abroad in a country where there’s a language barrier, do your best to quiet the perfectionist voices in your head. Perfectionism is incompatible with language learning. People who learn languages the fastest are those who immerse themselves, try even when they’re not sure if they’ll get it right, and take corrections.
For some inspiration and funny stories from someone who has spent time abroad, check out @lifeofcharissae on TikTok. Charissa moved to Thailand to attend graduate school without knowing much, if any, Thai. While she was there, she relied on the kindness of her professors, fellow students, and sometimes even friendly strangers to learn Thai. Along the way, she collected some fantastic memories, hilarious stories, and lifelong friends!
Ask for help
It’s normal to be scared to study abroad, and it’s also normal to ask for help. Confiding in a friend or family member can be a great place to start, especially if that person gives good advice and wants the best for you. Your school’s study abroad office is another great place to go for a pep talk, especially if they employ students who have been abroad themselves.
If you see a therapist at home, talk to them about your fears around studying abroad. You can also ask if they will be able to continue seeing you while you’re abroad.
Frequently asked questions about studying abroad
Here are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about studying abroad, based on my experience. Remember, there’s no such thing as a dumb question if you genuinely don’t know the answer. It’s perfectly fine to feel a little apprehensive or unsteady before studying abroad, but hopefully this post will help you to prepare to travel abroad.
Why is it so hard to study abroad?
Studying abroad is challenging because it asks you to balance moving abroad – a hard thing to do in its own right – with being a student. No matter how rewarding and exciting it may feel, you’ll also be experiencing a lot of change. You’ll be living in a new place, studying with new people, and sometimes living with a host family for the first time.
It may even be your first time traveling abroad.
Most people find change unsettling. This is true even if the changes are positive. People talk about studying abroad like it’s a huge life event because it is – for most people, it’s their first time living abroad and experiencing a new culture for a sustained period of time.
Remember all of the times when you’ve experienced positive changes in your life. They may have been a little bit disorienting at first, but that’s just part of the experience. It doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong.
How do I make friends while studying abroad?
Start working to make friends as soon as you can. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself, suggest activities, or ask to tag along if a group is going somewhere. With any luck, you’ll find a few friends in your study abroad cohort with whom you click.
If you’re studying abroad at a foreign university without a formal group, start making friends with the people in your orientation. Don’t be afraid to start a conversation with someone in your class or join a club for the semester. Most schools have study abroad or international offices that host events – go to these events, as the other students will also be looking to make friends.
To try to meet new friends outside of your university, try using apps like Bumble BFF or Meetup to meet friends. In some countries you’ll also find active groups on Facebook. Search for “[your country] expats in [the place you’re studying abroad]” and see if any groups come up.
Related Post: Is Studying Abroad Lonely?
What’s the best age to study abroad?
There is no “right” age to study abroad. However, you’ll probably get the most out of the experience between the ages of about 15 and 25.
If you decide to study abroad before or after these ages, that’s OK too! People move abroad at all ages and stages of life. When I say “study abroad” in this context, I mean a short term exchange program. There are, of course, plenty of students who complete graduate programs abroad at all ages.
Can I study abroad if I’m shy?
Absolutely. I’ve met lots of people who studied abroad despite being shy or introverted, and you can do it, too. You may face different challenges than your less shy peers, but don’t let that stop you.
If you’re shy and have a hard time meeting people, make a plan to start making friends as early as possible. You’ll want to attend social events at the beginning when they’re more likely to be open to everyone. Push yourself to get comfortable speaking up and talking to people who are different from you.
Remember, this is your first time ever studying abroad. You don’t have to be perfect, just do your best.
What are the biggest challenges when studying abroad?
The biggest challenges you’ll face when studying abroad will vary based on where you’re studying and your personal strengths. That said, there are some common challenges that people face when they decide to study abroad:
- Difficulty making friends
- Culture shock
Learn a little bit about these topics and make a plan to address them before you go abroad. Then, remember to be gentle towards yourself. If you find yourself feeling a little overwhelmed, take half a day off and recharge at home.
What do I do on the first night of my study abroad?
Most programs will have a multi-day orientation, typically beginning as soon as you arrive. Your first night you may be feeling overwhelmed, tired, or just a little worn down. Spend the first night you arrive making some social connections, but go to bed as soon as things start to wind down and it feels appropriate.
The first day or two of visiting a new country can be very tiring because your mind is trying to make sense of your new environment. This may feel even more true if you’re studying abroad in a country where you don’t speak the language or you don’t (yet) speak it well. Be patient with yourself and try your best to get a good night (or two) of sleep so that you’ll have energy for the rest of your orientation.