What I Wish I Knew Before Studying Abroad

Molly Ballenger
February 7, 2022
The ancient ruins of the monastery at Glendalough, just south of Dublin.

I’m four weeks into my program in Dublin, and I’m having a blast! I have so many fun trips planned in the next couple of months, and I’m starting to settle into a routine during the week that’s helping Dublin feel a lot more like home. 

But even though I’m having a great time, there are a few things I wish I had known before I arrived so I could have adjusted my expectations and made my transition a little easier. 

1. Studying abroad is not a four-month vacation. There will be bad days… 

Before I arrived in Dublin, the picture I had of studying abroad was completely from Instagram; I had watched friends go in semesters before me, and a lot of what I saw was them smiling and exploring some of the most beautiful places in the world with their friends. It looked perfectly ideal and picturesque. And I’m sure my Instagram feed looks similar! It feels weird to post the hard stuff. Because what you don’t see on your feed are the days when all you do is go to class, eat lunch and dinner by yourself in a strange city, and then watch Netflix until bed. Those days feel lonely. It’s hard watching your friends at college without you; a lot of mornings are spent watching Snapchat stories from the previous night, and it’s hard to romanticize being in Europe when you feel that alone and far away. Once the newness of your study abroad location wears off, the excitement fades and you have to come back to normal life. Yes, you get to travel and go on fun adventures, but at the end of the day you end up still having to deal with things like grocery shopping, laundry, and homework. 

I just think it’s important to know that when you do have a bad day, you’re not doing something wrong. Adjusting to a new culture is really hard, and it’s completely natural to have to deal with a fair amount of culture shock and homesickness. I promise, everyone else you know who’s studied abroad has felt some measure of it, even if they don’t post about it. 

2. …but the bad days won’t last forever.

I had my fair share of hard moments that turned into hard days in my first month here. The adjustment is a big one and can be incredibly exhausting, even in a country that speaks my language. There were a few nights when all I wanted to do was go home. 

But then I would reconnect with friends or family back home, go to bed, and wake up the next morning to plan an exciting trip or explore a new part of the city, and I’d immediately be reminded of how special it is to have an opportunity to live in a new place for four months. One of my mantras for this semester is “Learn how to eat the fruit in season.” In this season of life, my fruits are new adventures, learning independence, and seeing as much of Europe as I can. I probably won’t ever have this kind of life again, and I don’t want to wish it away. 

Even though there are bad days, the good days far outnumber them, and the new adventures you get to experience are worth every hard moment. 

3. Make space in your suitcase and time in your day for the things that feel like home. 

There’s nothing I can recommend more than taking the time and effort to bring decorations, pictures, or even a small pillow or something similar that will make your living space feel more homey. I’ve found that how my bedroom is decorated makes a huge difference in my well-being, so being able to put up pictures and curl up with my favorite throw blanket from home always makes me feel better. 

Along with this, don’t forget supplies for your favorite hobbies. You’re going to be the same person while you’re abroad, with the same interests. It makes it easier to adjust to life in a new country if you get to enjoy the same hobbies that you love. 

I also found that it really helped me to try and simulate my routine at home as much as possible. Once I started making time to workout and go on walks like I do at home, I started relaxing a lot more. 

There are a lot of ways that you can make your space abroad feel more homey; the small changes can make a big difference! Make time for them and your adjustment to your new life will be a lot smoother. 

4. Learn how to explore by yourself. 

You could find some great friends while abroad; I hope you do! Having a group to travel with is so fun and also makes exploring a lot safer. 

But whether you find a good group of friends or not, don’t miss out on the experience of learning to adventure by yourself. Even if it’s going on a day trip bus tour or just walking around the city by yourself on a free Saturday, don’t let your friend circumstances hold you back from the experiences you want out of studying abroad. There are lots of ways that solo travel can be safe and fun, with hostels made to build community among solo travelers and guided group tours so you’re not always by yourself. 

Solo traveling means you really get to do whatever you want during your time in a new place; you don’t have to worry about respecting other people’s preferences or being polite. It also provides great time for reflection and reconnection with how you’re feeling and where you’re at emotionally. Check off your bucket list items for study abroad and learn how to be an independent explorer!

5. Comparison really is the thief of joy.

Whatever you do, really try your hardest not to compare your study abroad experience with anyone else’s, even someone in your same program. Everyone has different challenges and goals for their time abroad, so it isn’t fair to you or anyone else to try to compare your semesters. Stay focused on yourself instead of fixating on others’ experiences; you have the power to create the experiences you want out of your semester! 

These are just five things that I wish I had known before leaving for my trip, so I hope they help you!

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Molly Ballenger

<p>I'm an English and Religion major at Furman University from Lookout Mountain, Georgia. At school, I'm on the leadership team for several campus ministries, I work at my school's farm, and I play club ultimate frisbee! In my free time, I enjoy being outside, climbing, and playing guitar, as well as spending time with friends.</p>

2022 Spring
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Furman University
Lookout Mountain, GA
Religious Studies
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