This week we’ve been talking about making the most of your study abroad and making that experience ‘work for you’ later in life as well as sharing advice and insights into other’s real international experience. It thus only feels fitting to take this post to talk about my study abroad semester in Alicante, some of the unexpected realities that came up, and what I learned from them. Enjoy!
It genuinely took a while it to ‘sink in’
This is something I’ve tried to explain countless times to different people and I’m never sure if I’m able to express myself well on the topic, but I’ll try. My decision to study abroad in Alicante, Spain my sophomore year of university was huge and I was aware of this at the time. I got sincerely excited talking about it with my study abroad advisor, the student mentors who had previously studied abroad, and with my family and friends. Moving to Spain for a semester was something I was excited, nervous, and eager for…but I also don’t feel like it really sunk in until I got to Spain (and arguably, not until a few days later when I moved in with my host family)!
What I mean is that there were so many logistical concerns to take care of (filling out my application for the program I was interested in, compiling the documents I would need for my visa, picking out the classes I would take, ordering my prescriptions in advance, shopping for the items I would need to take with me, etc) that I got caught up in the process and didn’t exactly think about the reality that I would be in a foreign country come January. Although you might find this odd, this is actually the same exact phenomenon I’ve noticed happening EVERY time I’ve prepared to moved abroad (twice more to Spain and once to Costa Rica).
I don’t want to specifically advise you to approach a move abroad this way as it may not be healthy for everyone but I do loads of contemplating and soul-searching BEFORE finally making the decision to go abroad. Thus, once that decision is made I kind of kick into action-mode and don’t really snap out of it to deal with the emotional side until I’m on the flight over or settling into my new home and journaling about it all. For me, this works at it allows me to get out of my head and not give any energy to unfounded doubts and ‘what-ifs.’ It instead allows me to trust in my decision and not be distracted by thoughts that do not serve me. Besides, all the doubts I’d otherwise have tend to sort themselves out by the time I arrive so it’s a bit of a time-saver too.
I didn’t feel homesick…until I did
Something that caught me off-guard, especially considering I’m an only-child who is very close to her family and friends, was that I didn’t feel homesick for the longest time! I had brought with me a number of mementos, photos, even my childhood beanie baby for the inevitable moment when I was longing for the other side of the Atlantic but I personally didn’t feel much need for them for months. I guess that’s the reality of having Skype, social media, (now Whatsapp), and so many other forms of communication these days—I was able to connect with people back home on a regular basis and when I wasn’t doing that I was either busy with school work, cultural events my program organized, hanging out with new friends, or just taking in my new beautiful surroundings. I almost felt guilty that I wasn’t feeling melancholic…
But then April rolled around and that three-month feeling hit. Whenever I talk to anyone about studying or moving abroad I’m always sure to mention how this happened to me because at the time I didn’t know what to think. I thought it was WEIRD that I would start to feel homesick so long after arriving in Spain. I didn’t feel like there were any clear triggers I could pinpoint as reasons for my sudden loneliness and lack of enthusiasm to leave my room. I assumed I was the only one feeling this way so I just didn’t share my thoughts with anyone else.
I Skyped and Facebook-chatted with a few more people than usual during those weeks, watched TV shows and movies that reminded me of home, and didn’t make many other plans for awhile. And then, with no profound reason, it eventually passed. I got through this phase just fine but, in retrospect, I simply wish I had realized that lots of people go through something similar around three months into living somewhere new. We talk a lot more about why in this article but if you find yourself in a similar situation I advise you not to be afraid to be honest about your feelings, especially with your fellow study-abroaders. Odds are, at least one of your friends is feeling the same way and is too embarrassed to mention it to you but once it’s out in the open and feels normal, it will dissipate that much faster and you can get back to living up your study abroad time.
I didn’t want to travel as much as my friends were
I’ll admit that one of my big reasons for choosing Spain over the other Spanish-speaking countries I was considering was its location in Europe and the prospect that I could therefore do a lot of traveling during the semester too. So it WAS my intention to “check a few more countries off my bucket list”* during my study abroad semester, however I could never have anticipated how aggressively some of my classmates would take that challenge on…and how much it made me not want to.
I’m generalizing, of course, but it felt like everyone else in my program was jetting off every weekend or at least every other weekend to a foreign destination. Our program organized two weekend trips (to Barcelona and Granada) and a handful of day trips within Spain and so many of us had the mentality that we were “already doing Spain” and needed to use our free time to go elsewhere. I was much slower to jump on the bandwagon and didn’t plan any travels of my own during the first month, but thought I would “get on top of it” thereafter.
However, I heard so many stories of travel mishaps, of having to spend more time in the airport than in the city, of barely sleeping in order to fit in all the sightseeing possible in a 48 hour period, etc that I developed a little bit of an aversion to the whole idea of it. Without necessarily realizing it, I only planned ONE weekend away that whole semester! Instead, I batched my personal traveling into three big trips—one over Semana Santa to Italy and Greece, one in May to London, Berlin, and Vienna, and one for 5 days to Sevilla to visit a friend from college who was studying there.
At the time, I was embarrassed that I was ‘wasting’ my study abroad time (which I thought would be my ONLY time ever in Europe, lol) by not taking advantage of weekends away. I was worried that I would look back one day and shake my head at unadventurous 19 year-old me but do you want to know the funny part? What was once something I was so doubtful about is now my biggest piece of advice to anyone studying abroad! Because not traveling every weekend meant that Alicante became my home!
It meant that I had time to spend with my host mom, to bond with my new friends, to just grab a book and lay out in the sun. I had time to actually be in the place I had chosen and it’s one thing I look back on as a huge win! I’m now really proud of myself for having that self-awareness at such a young age to realize that, although it may have been expected that I traveled more, it wasn’t what I truly wanted or needed and I gained so much more from following my intuition on that. If something inside is telling you the same, I absolutely advise you to listen. The FOMO and the never-ending expectations may still be there, but you don’t have to give them power over your choices.
I could go on for days about my study abroad experience, how it went, and what it has taught me but I think these three unexpected realities encompass the most important realizations that semester brought. You’ll hear it time and time again, but it’s true—studying abroad is a time of immense growth and discovery. Embrace it and allow yourself to learn, not only about the language and the culture around you, but about YOURSELF. I, for one, am glad I did!
*The idea of visiting somewhere just to say you have done so is something I, like Claudia, now cringe at…but I have to be honest and say it was the way I was thinking back then.