An international student's survival guide to studying abroad

An international student's survival guide to studying abroad

Young people have plenty of stressors – schoolwork, peer relationships, money worries, sexual identity and orientation, lack of time, self-esteem, and more. But when students make the decision to study abroad, they will face a whole lot of new and / or increased stressors. This can make for some pretty rough times unless they know what to expect and what tools and resources they can use to overcome them. 

Below is a list of the most common stressors of studying abroad and strategies for successfully coping with them.

1. Homesickness

This is probably the most common of stressors, and it can last anywhere from just a few days to weeks (or more). Students have moved into an entirely new environment in which they may know no one at all. It can cause a depressed mood, lack of motivation, physical illnesses and more. However, you can work to overcome this faster, through these few tips:

  • Find other students from your home country. You may not be from the same city or region, but you still have a lot in common.
  • You are fortunate to live in our advanced digital world. You can call, email, message and even Skype with friends and family back home. In days gone by, snail mail was the only means of communication, other than very expensive overseas calls.
  • If it is allowed in your housing, get a pet – a dog or cat is best because interaction with them can release “happy” hormones.
  • Even if you have to do it alone, get out of your dorm room or apartment, and explore the city. If classes have not yet begun, you can spend a lot of time doing this, and keeping busy is important.
  • Eat well and healthy, this supports your overall physical and mental health.

2. Culture shock

Again, this varies. If you have visited your host country in the past, you may have an easier time. However, you are no longer a tourist. You have to live off the economy, even if you are in a dormitory room.

You have to shop, you have to take public transportation, you will have to pay rent if you stay in an apartment, there are obvious language barriers if you are not proficient in the host country’s language, you have to figure out healthcare. Navigating all of these in the first few weeks is a challenge. Here are a few tips for this stressor:

  • Find a local among other students. This may be easier in a dorm environment, but you will be in classes with these folks, so make a few friendships quickly.
  • Ask for help! For the most part, people do like to help others.
  • Join an international student organisation right away. You will get plenty of tips on how to deal with your new situation from those who have been living it for a while.

3. Academic pressures

Depending upon the school, you may have classes in your native language or not. If not, you have certainly done some preparation for this, immersing yourself in the host language before arrival. Still, this will be a challenge and can really be anxiety-producing.

Plus, there is pressure to do well, because studying abroad can be expensive. If your parents have financially supported this endeavour, then the pressure can even be worse. So, what can you do to alleviate some of the pressure?

  • Get a digital translator immediately.
  • Use online tools to translate your texts and study materials. These will not be perfect, but certainly better than nothing. 
  • Join a study group with others who know the language better than you, and can help you understand the materials.

Over time, you will become increasingly fluent, and this pressure will dissipate.

4. Financial pressures

If you are on your own financially, you have the additional pressure of stretching your savings and earnings to last as long as possible. Of course, you have prepared for this in advance, but that does not mean that you are “out of the woods.” Unexpected expenses will pop up. You may have to tap your parents again (uggh!). The most important strategies are these:

  • Have a slush fund in advance for those unexpected expenses.
  • Develop and stick to a strict budget if money is tight.
  • You might even consider some part-time work, such as tutoring. Given the global nature of online tutoring today, if there is a subject in which you excel, you can sign up with online tutoring services and earn some extra money. If you are a good writer, do some freelancing for pay.

5. Lack of social life

If you have taken the step to study abroad, chances are that you are already an outgoing person. But with culture shock and other pressures on you, you may want to “retreat” a bit. Don’t do that. Force yourself out.

  • Start with joining an international student organisation
  • Go to common areas on campus – student union, lounge in your dorm, library and so on, and initiate conversations.
  • Get to know those who live right around you. Begin by asking simple questions, such as where the best place to shop for groceries or clothes is.

Gradually, you will find those with common interests and your social life will pick up.

You're not alone in this

While your unique situation may bring about stressors that are not listed here or result in stressors that last longer than usual, remember this:  People are people the world over. They have the same needs and desires as you, they have many of the same stress-producing situations as you. Even native students will face academic, financial and social pressures.

Give yourself time to acclimatise, initiate contact with fellow students, get help if you are struggling academically, especially from peers. Ultimately, your study abroad will be an experience that changes your life – and for the good!

Kristin Savage


Kristin Savage

Kristin Savage nourishes, sparks and empowers using the magic of a word. Now she works as a freelance writer at TrustMyPaper and GrabMyEssay.

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