Let’s talk loneliness.
It is not the most glamorous parts of study abroad, but it is an important part of the journey and self-discovery that comes with taking your education international. In the pre-departure meetings and any checklist you’ll find online about mentally preparing yourself to be abroad, culture shock is one of the top contenders for “most mentioned” phrase. Culture shock pops up in a lot of different ways and affects different students in different ways. It can present itself as irritability and frustration with certain customs of the country you are visiting, stubbornness to stick to familiar foods, calling family and friends a little too frequently, but, for me, it shows up as loneliness.
I was lucky enough to have my Dad fly out with me to help get settled in Madrid (hooray for airlines with skymiles programs) and stayed for about 5 days with me. It was great being able to explore the city together and ground myself as a new madrileño with him. After he flew back to the states, it was orientations, university welcome activities, beginning classes, and meeting slews of other international students for a few weeks. Once the excitement from being a new country for longer than a vacation died down, I became terribly lonely.
It’s easy to withdraw yourself into solitude when you’re abroad: you crawl into your bed in your flat, watch Netflix, and eat familiar comfort home foods. You phone home and spend all of your time talking to your loved ones thousands of miles away instead of trying to integrate yourself into the culture around you. I’m not saying that the entire time you’re abroad you have to be ALWAYS experiencing the traditional way of life, but if you’re avoiding it, ask yourself, “Am I feeling culture shock right now?”
I am sure there are dozens of articles that give advice on how to handle loneliness abroad, but here are just a few things that I have personally found helpful to overcoming my culture shock:
- If you can, practice doing things by yourself before you go abroad. For example, going to concerts, movies or museums by yourself gives you time to spend with yourself (which you’ll have a lot of once you’re plopped into a new environment). It’s important to prove to yourself that you don’t *need* other people to have a good time.
- Once you’re abroad, try to make weekly plans with a person or group of people not from your home country that you’ve met. Coffee on Thursday mornings, bar hopping on Saturday nights, or going to a different museum together every week not only gives you something to look forward to, but also engages you with people from different cultures and gets you out of your apartment.
- Practice the language of the country you’re in. Even if it’s not perfect, the more conversations you have, the more you know about what you need to improve on and it’ll help you connect to the locals better. Ask the baristas how their weekend was, talk to your landlord about their favorite things to do in the city, ask for directions.
- Plan a trip by yourself, for yourself, doing the things YOU are interested in. For me, I spent last weekend in Barcelona by myself, visiting the kind of nerdy stuff that I love – architectural attractions and history – and I was on my own schedule. It’s one of the only times in your life that you’ll be travelling with minimal responsibilities (bills, family, work, etc), and you can tailor your trips to ONLY what you want to do or see.
- Allow yourself to be sad and feel lonely. It’s more than okay to be homesick, even if you do consider yourself a very independent person. Talk to people who know how to make you feel better, but allow yourself to have and process those emotions.
Study abroad has given me an incredible opportunity to figure out how I handle loneliness and independence. Because in the end, I still have to be here for a whole semester, so I’m the one who needs to know how I function best. I can gladly say that I have discovered things about myself and how I handle different stresses because I am living completely independent of everything I am familiar with. While not without some trial-and-error, it’s been so important to my personal growth as a global citizen, and I am incredibly grateful for it.