The Emotionality of Studying Abroad: A Game of Chutes and Ladders

Mary Kaitlin Enright
March 12, 2020

When you are preparing for a semester abroad, the abroad veterans that you ask for advice always have the best things to say about their experience.

“The happiest I’ve ever been!”

“Everyday is better than the last!”

“The best semester of my life!”

The hidden truth that people often forget to share is that it's not always like that. You’re not always happy. And it doesn’t always feel like the best semester of your life. 

And that is absolutely okay.

That’s why I'm here to give you the real scoop, the truth about the emotionality of studying abroad. For all those who are nervous about what it’ll be like, emotionally and mentally, here’s my take (and I can assure you that many others feel the same way that I do)! 

The most important thing that you need to know is that getting settled, comfortable, and happy in your new home is a process, and one that is far from linear. Actually, the process of getting settled into your new home can be a lot like a game of Chutes and Ladders. Have you ever played? Let me give you the low down. 

To play the game of Chutes and Ladders: Abroad Edition, first you take a turn at the spinner, and it will tell you how many spaces on the board you get to move. 





Five spaces, you move a little bit forward, much like how each day can feel like moving forward a little bit in your settling process. 

Maybe you move one space further: have a good day, get all of your homework done. Maybe you move two or three spaces, hang out with some friends, make it to the gym. Maybe you even go see something cool in your abroad city or make a local friend—five spaces! Moving a little bit at a time, with each turn, each day, you get closer and closer to study abroad semester success.

If you’re really lucky, you’ll land on a ladder space. The ladder allows you to climb up a row or two, skipping all of the spaces in between. It’s like a shortcut to the winning space, and launches you forward in the game. 

This happens sometimes when you are abroad, too. Maybe you do something incredible in your abroad city, take a weekend trip away, or even just have a wonderful time with friends and realize you’ve made some for a lifetime. All in the course of one move, one day, you feel like you’re two, three rows closer to feeling settled in and reaching “Best semester of my life” status. 

But, then there’s the chutes. These are the spaces that no one talks about, that no one warns you about before you come abroad. It can be just a normal day, a normal turn of the spinner. But where do you land? At the top of a chute, and you need to ride down that slide, maybe one row, two, or even three or more. Suddenly, it can feel like you're back where you started. You feel alone, you miss home, you are overwhelmed, and it feels like there’s nothing you can do. 

I cried the first night that I arrived in Cape Town. I’ll admit it. It was scary and overwhelming.

But then the three weeks that followed were fantastic. I met people from all over the U.S., and South Africa, and the world, with experiences like mine and unlike mine—people who have since become my friends. We explored Cape Town, and saw the incredible views and experiences it has to offer. I climbed ladders up the Chutes and Ladders: Abroad Edition game, feeling closer and closer to feeling settled and happy in my new environment. 

Yet, then three weeks in, with a slew of friends and a bucketful of wonderful memories in (now) one of my favorite places on Earth, I suddenly got overwhelmed. School started to pile on, and when I was feeling stressed and homesick, I stayed in one night while what felt like everyone else was socializing. 

Am I missing out? I thought. 

Shouldn’t I be having the best time of my life? I thought. 

I cried some more. Chutes are sneaky that way.

But two days later, I was climbing up a ladder (figuratively and literally) while hiking to the top of one of Cape Town’s amazing mountains, with people who I have grown to consider great friends. The stress dissipated, and I was back on track, moving forward in the game. And now, I couldn’t be happier with my abroad experience.

I have had days that I’ve moved one or two spaces. I have had days that I landed on ladders, and ended up three rows up the game, feeling like I’m on top of the world. And I’ve had days that I’ve ridden that chute back to the bottom, and had to start over, feeling overwhelmed, homesick, and lonely. Yet, I always spin again, move some more spaces, and keep going. We all have, and we all do. 

When you’re feeling down after a bad day on a chute, it’s easy to feel like you should be having the best time of your life, and wonder why you’re not. 

It’s easy to feel like you shouldn’t stay in, you have to do everything, and you’ll ruin your experience if you don’t. 

And it’s easy to feel like you’re alone in all of those feelings. 

But, the most important thing to remember is that Chutes and Ladders: Abroad Edition is a multiplayer game. And everyone on your program is spinning that spinner, climbing those ladders, and riding those chutes. 

You are not alone. Everyone is with you. Everyone has felt how you feel. And everyone understands.

Studying abroad is an emotional and tumultuous experience, and comes with sadness, loneliness, homesickness, and so much more. It’s fantastic and overwhelming and sad and wonderful all at the same time. And it’s okay to admit it. Because everyone goes through it. 

So, enjoy the highs and the lows, and make the most of the messiness that this experience holds. 

Because that’s what makes it the best semester of your life.

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Mary Kaitlin Enright

<p>I was born and raised in Glenview, Illinois, a suburb of the beautiful city of Chicago. When I was fifteen, I was surprised by the unexpected opportunity to move to Hong Kong, when my family was transferred there. That was the very beginning of my relationship with the travel bug, by which I have been afflicted ever since. I spent time traveling around Asia with my family throughout high school, then traveling through Europe in my first year of college while studying abroad in London. Now a Marketing student at Villanova University with minors in Creative Writing and Communication, my next stop is Cape Town, South Africa, and I am excited to share my experience with the world.</p>

2020 Spring
Home University:
Villanova University
Glenview, IL
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