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All my life, I have been fortunate enough to have parents who encouraged and supported me studying abroad. However, I had never left the U.S. prior to this experience, and I felt geographically clueless when deciding where I wanted to study. This feeling was particularly unpleasant as I watched seemingly everyone around me gain admission to programs in their dream cities; but, it was also my fault for not having thought about it earlier. At this point, I was worried that my decision would be rushed and that I wouldn’t end up choosing the “right” city. But, rather than falling victim to self-pity, I did my research and trusted my intuitions.
Fast forward to January 4, and my flight to London was taking off. I had convinced myself that London was the right city for me, but I had yet to truly find out. An inevitable combination of excitement and nervousness overtook me as I thought to myself, “Wow. This is really happening.” It frankly felt like life had moved so quickly up until this moment that I didn’t have time to process its arrival. But I was ready for this new chapter.
Two months in, my greatest lifestyle change had been the extent to which I was spending time alone. But let me clarify: alone doesn’t mean lonely. In fact, my favorite aspect of this experience had been learning how to successfully be alone. Whether that meant going out to a club alone and meeting my first Australian friend, wandering the streets of London for hours after class, or visiting a museum along the water in coastal Denmark, I learned how to take advantage of opportunities to learn and grow independently and anonymously. Each time I was alone, I was surrounded by so much, yet simultaneously familiar with so little. Each time, I became more self-aware and felt more capable. While sometimes it would have been nice to walk around and see my friends like I do in Ann Arbor, learning how to love being alone had proven to be invaluable. It taught me the importance of being more attentive to my thoughts and my surroundings. It taught me the beauty of figuring new things out on my own. It taught me how to feel comfortable being uncomfortable. I never had as much time to think to myself as I did abroad, and that thinking has contributed dramatically to my self-growth by giving me the chance to learn about and engage with myself on a new level.
I was quite grateful to have joined ThinkMental, my study abroad university’s mental health society. My time in Wolverine Support Network at the University of Michigan undoubtedly drove my decision to join, and although the two organizations are considerably different, ThinkMental provided me with a warm, welcoming community of students who care about one another’s well-being. As an exchange student, this was an especially valuable outlet to develop meaningful, cross-cultural relationships. To study abroad students seeking a sense of community while abroad: I encourage joining a student organization in order to connect with and learn from locals. If this is not an option, I encourage you to take advantage of any chance to meet new people. It may sound both cliche and unsettling, but the most spontaneous decisions led to some of my most special relationships formed abroad.
Now you must be wondering what the downside to studying abroad was for me. Personally, the biggest struggle I faced was an inability to focus – and I’m not just referring to schoolwork. Living in a large city had been a culture shock in and of itself, and as my sense of curiosity grew and new opportunities continually presented themselves, I faced major difficulty in focusing on any given thing. So many thoughts and feelings seemed to run through my head that it was often hard to capture and process them. Perhaps it was heightened by a fear of missing out on new experiences, and thus feeling as if eight things were constantly competing for my attention at once. Certainly, social media was unhelpful in this regard. As I saw my friends doing things I hadn’t done and visiting places I hadn’t visited, I suddenly believed I was being less productive than I had thought.
As someone who is used to being on top of everything, this state of mental overload was both new and, at times, uncomfortable. To the people whose messages I ignored: I promise it wasn’t personal; I was just trying to first process everything myself. To find balance, I practiced mindfulness, I stopped routinely scrolling through my social media feeds, I exercised, and I reminded myself that it was okay to not be on my feet 24/7.
With all of that in mind, I was genuinely living my best life abroad. By taking advantage of as many social and cultural opportunities as I could, I managed to adapt smoothly. I maintained a healthy mental state because I knew I was making the most of my experience while learning deeply about myself and the world around me in the process. It took me until this point to realize how much I don’t know about the world, but this realization was - and still is - exciting and inspiring. Surely moments arose in which I felt weirdly removed from my American life, and various obstacles came along with constant traveling, but these problems were miniscule in proportion to how much I was gaining from this experience. It’s hard to complain about a flight delay when that flight is taking you from Portugal to Spain.
Now, here’s the bottom line. There’s a lot of pressure associated with studying abroad. Everyone tells you it’s going to be the greatest, most unforgettable period of your life. They see your glamorous social media posts and tell you you’re “thriving,” even if they have no clue how you actually feel. Most of them ask, “Are you loving it?!” rather than asking, “How are you?” And yet, as I sit here blaming social media for painting incomplete and idealized pictures of people’s lives, I feel so fortunate to be able to say that the image social media painted of my life abroad was about as real as it gets. Every day, I ultimately woke up feeling happy and grateful for the life I was living, and I hope everyone studying abroad has a plethora of moments in which they feel the same way.