I remember my first solo overseas trip as if it were yesterday. I had spent a year planning, working, saving money, and preparing myself for what I was certain would be the experience of a lifetime. My itinerary would take me on a three month circuit of Western Europe, beginning in Paris and moving in a vast counter-clockwise loop through Southern France into Italy, then northward through Austria, Germany, Belgium, and eventually across the Channel to England, Scotland, and Wales. I had my passport. I had my Eurail Pass. I had my hiking boots, a copy of “Let’s Go: Europe 1996,” and a healthy sense of adventure. I was ready – it was going to be epic!
The fourteen hour flight to Europe was a blur of anticipation and excitement. My imagination was awash with images of the sites I would see, the amazing people I would meet, and the rich cultures I would soak in. It wasn’t until I found myself bleary-eyed, jet lagged, and exhausted on a bus arriving at bleak transit depot in the rainy industrial exurbs of Paris that it suddenly occurred to me:
I had no idea what I was doing.
What was I doing alone in a foreign country where I barely spoke the language? What the heck made me think this was a good idea, planning to be on the road alone for THREE MONTHS? I must have been out of my mind. At that moment, it was all I could do to keep myself from fleeing in a panic to the nearest airport and jumping on the next flight back to California.
Thus I encountered for the first time (though not the last) the disorienting symptoms of culture shock and homesickness. I didn’t know it at the time, but these dual phenomena are so closely related that they’re almost impossible to disentangle. It makes perfect sense, when you think about it: the dissonance one feels when confronted with an unfamiliar environment (culture-shock) naturally leads one to desire the safe, comfortable, and familiar (homesickness). But I wasn’t pondering these philosophical fine points as I stood in that chilly Parisian bus stop, watching the rainwater puddle in the folds of my backpack. At that moment, I was wondering what my friends were doing back home and wishing that I’d never embarked on this ridiculous trip.
With the benefit of hindsight, of course, I realize that this journey was a formative experience; it was a crucible on my road to full adulthood. Not only did I go on to have many of the amazing experiences I was craving, but I also came to understand that emotional discomfort is often an indispensable catalyst for personal growth.
Now, over twenty years later, I work with students every term who have a similar experience – they grapple with the discouraging emotions that often accompany travel to an unfamiliar environment. In my conversations with students on the subject, the first thing I point out is that it’s extremely common and totally normal. In fact, I would estimate that the majority of students experience homesickness at some point during their time abroad. (If you manage to escape entirely, you are one of the lucky few!)
While nothing can fully prepare you for the experience of being homesick, here are three tips for working through it:
1) Don’t retreat.
When we’re feeling low, most of us tend to withdraw into ourselves. Rather than reaching out, we would prefer to be alone. Of course, this a natural and totally understandable reaction to feeling uncomfortable, anxious, or unhappy! But when you’re dealing with homesickness, seeking solitude can actually make things worse. As an alternative, when you feel out of your element and you’re missing the folks back home, get involved! Sign up for an extra-curricular activity, meet friends for coffee, plan a weekend trip with some of your classmates. It’s not a question of distracting yourself, so much as finding a way to engage more deeply with the experience you’re having in your new environment. Besides, staying active and involved throughout your study abroad experience helps ensure that you have the best stories to tell when you get back home!
2) Talk about it.
If you find yourself feeling homesick in your host city, I promise you’re not alone! Sometimes we are embarrassed to admit that we’re feeling uncomfortable or we’re ashamed that we’re not having as much fun as everybody else. It’s important to understand that there’s nothing to be ashamed of and talking about what you’re going through can help you feel better. More often than not, you’ll find that if you’re willing to open up, others will admit to having similar feelings and experiences, even if they appear to be having the time of their lives 24/7. It’s important to know that you have support while you’re studying abroad, both from your Program Coordinator and from your fellow students.
3) Moderate reliance on technology to “keep in touch.”
Technology is, in so many ways, a double-edged sword. Most of us have become reliant on our devices to help us function day-to-day and this reliance takes on added significance when we’re studying abroad. Skype, WhatsApp, Facetime, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and myriad others – all of these tools can be incredibly helpful. When we’re traveling, they allow us stay in contact with our family and help us feel connected to life back home. But I’d like to offer a word of caution: while these technological tools are useful, they can also drive a wedge between us and our immediate physical surroundings. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with touching base from time to time with friends and family, but it’s important not to try to live your life in two places at once. You will find that your homesickness subsides more quickly when your feet are firmly planted where you are, enjoying all the richness your host city has to offer.
So, boldly prepare yourself for a fantastic study abroad experience and bear in mind that sometimes feeling lonely or out of place is just “part of the deal.” To help get over any rough patches you may encounter, I encourage you to approach each new experiences with an open mind! If you exercise patience (with yourself and others) and understand that homesickness can be a natural part of your overseas adventure, you will get the very most out of your time abroad.