Experiencing homesickness and culture shock while studying abroad – you’re not alone
The common sense way of starting a post about culture shock and homesickness would probably be to define them, but they’re different for everyone so I’m not going to try. The bad news is that they’re both pretty much inevitable when you’re abroad. The good news is that if everyone else can overcome them, there’s no reason you can’t too. Here are my experiences with homesickness and culture shock while I was studying abroad, and a bit about my discovery of what I like to call the “Aha moment”.
I’m actually going to tell you about someone that I studied abroad with and her battle with homesickness instead of my own. Trust me, I wasn’t immune to homesickness, but her longing for the homeland dwarfed mine to the point that it’s almost sad.
Out of the 15 of us that went to St. Andrews from Holy Cross, this person was originally the most energized and excited. She was the one that made the Facebook group, attempted to coordinate everyone’s flights, and organized all of the little get-togethers in the beginning at the Raisin so we could acclimate as a group.
The positivity lasted until the beginning of November, at which point she went on a miserable downward spiral for pretty much the rest of the year. All of a sudden, she really started to miss her friends, her family, and our awesome alma mater, Holy Cross – all of which isn’t uncommon. In an effort to express her longing for everything America, she began to rag on everything that somehow related to studying abroad: the town of St. Andrews, The University of St. Andrews, the country of Scotland, the continent of Europe, and the rest of the world that wasn’t the U.S. That’s the part that is uncommon.
Eventually, after months of trying to help, we couldn’t even eat meals with her because she would make us feel miserable. When she wasn’t in class, she was hiding in her room on Skype with her parents, missing out on what could’ve been one of the best experiences of her life. She lost just about every friend, gained a ton of weight because she never moved, and when it came time to present our independent cultural immersion projects, it was obvious that she spent her entire year staring at the four walls of her dorm room.
Homesickness is normal, but please don’t let it do this to you.
Believe it or not, there is a ton of research done on culture shock, and the experts have even categorized it into stages. And while culture shock is different for everyone, I think they nailed it spot on.
It started to snow in St. Andrews in the middle of December, right as we were all about to head home for Christmas break. When we came back at the beginning of January to take our first semester finals, to our disappointment, we were greeted by a thick blanket of the white stuff. (It so happened that we were experiencing the worst UK winter in 40 years!) The following 4-6 week period wasn’t exactly my most upbeat, psychologically speaking.
It wasn’t because I particularly missed America: I talked to friends and family via Skype, kept up with my favorite sports teams online, and was even able to watch some illegal TV in my dorm room (I didn’t buy a TV license but somehow still got cable). It also wasn’t specifically because I didn’t like St. Andrews. I was in the mecca of the golf world, had already done tons of traveling, and was starting to really make new friends.
My experience of culture shock can be summarized with this statement: It wasn’t necessarily that I was homesick, there were just periods here and there when I was wondering what the hell I was doing in the middle of Scotland while the rest of my life was back in the U.S.
How did I get through it? I talked to a friend back home who had been abroad in Scotland before, and when he told me he felt the same way when he was there, it made me feel a lot better. You’d be amazed how much it helps when you know you’re not alone in the way you’re feeling. And if you need someone to send a message to like I did, my inbox is always open.
The “Aha Moment”
I wish I could copyright that phrase, but I digress. During “reading week” in November of 2009, my friends and I made our first jaunt over to mainland Europe to spend some time in Barcelona. One day, while walking along the Barce beach, we stopped for a breather, and staring out in the Mediterranean, the magnitude of what I was doing hit me.
There I was, a 21 year-old kid from Manchester, NH, with very little life experience and a horrible sense of direction, standing barefoot on a white(ish) sand beach in Spain (recovering from a hangover that could be partially attributed the ICE Bar on the beach we went to the night before) staring out into some of the clearest and bluest water I had ever seen.
While my friends at home had their noses buried in books, I was fortunate enough to be experiencing the world, something very few people get to do in a lifetime, never mind at my age. It was during this moment, my “Aha Moment”, that I realized that all of the preparation I had done before I left, the homesickness I had occasionally experienced, and the financial sacrifices I had made to go abroad were all worth it.
I had a number of these “Aha moments” over the year – playing the Old Course, drinking Champagne under the Eiffel Tower at midnight, drinking a Guinness in the Storehouse Sky Bar while looking out over Dublin – that kept me going and inspired me to study abroad again.
The anticipation of those moments was enough to help me overcome all homesickness and culture shock, but if you’re looking for more remedies, here are a few:
It’s usually what people ditch first but it’s actually calming and helps the mind as well as the body re-energize and re-focus. Not to mention it’ll save you from feeling the added depression of getting fat.
Control how much you talk to people back home:
Keep in touch too little and you’ll miss people back home due to lack of contact. Talk to them too much and you’ll become dependent on them.
Most of my “Aha moments” happened while I was traveling. If it helps, think of traveling as your reward for staying sane enough to do all of your work.
Get out of your room:
Go have a cup of coffee with some friends. Feel free to talk about your feelings, remember it’s normal to be homesick, just stay positive. Keep in mind that this will probably be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and the time you spend sulking in your room is time you’ll never get back. By studying abroad, you are more fortunate than 80% of other college students out there.
Live the dream:
Most of what you remember from back home is more utopian than realistic. Don’t let yourself believe for one second that you would be happier anywhere else than where you’re studying abroad.