To go or not to go (abroad)

I’ve been abroad for a month and a few days. In this short time, I’ve realized that, just like some people aren’t meant to study far away from home for college, some people just aren’t meant to go abroad. Of course, the massive difference between these situations is that while for financial reasons, a college far away might be the best option, it is almost never necessary for someone to go abroad. So who do I think should be going abroad?

Well, first and foremost, you need to be someone who is very adaptable. Almost all places outside of the U.S. borders function differently from the American lifestyle. This is to be expected, but still some people are extremely caught off guard. If you aren’t an adaptable person, culture shock is likely to get the best of you. Once this happens, no matter what is going on around you, you are going to have a bad time. Quite frankly, if you can’t handle slight changes or disturbances in your day-to-day life in America such as missing a bus, having to change plans at the last minute or restaurant food not being quite how you expected, then it is my firm opinion that studying abroad is not for you. There is merit to wanting to go abroad despite these feelings, but from my brief experience here, it appears that people who are very schedule-oriented individuals are struggling with the lack of structure.

Second, you need to have money. Please, don’t come to a foreign country and not have enough money to enjoy it. I am currently living with a host family, so I thought I wouldn’t be spending “too much” money on food, but boy, was I wrong. It isn’t even that I am buying meals, I am also buying snacks. I am buying little things I see in Japan that I don’t see in America. So I am consuming candy, random pastries and dozens of different types of bread that there was no way I could have predicted I would be spending money on. However, if I couldn’t even afford to buy these random delicacies, I would probably feel really bad! There is more to studying abroad than just getting there. You need to have personal spending money that you shouldn’t feel guilty spending at any point. Of course, having money comes with the other responsibility of appropriately spending it. Don’t end up with only half of your budget left when you have over half of your program left. It is depressing and scary (so I’ve heard).

It is extremely important that you remember that your short semester or year of experiences in a foreign country is the reality of other people’s daily lives. Be self-aware of your surroundings and your opinions. While you are entitled to your opinions, just because a new country’s customs and way of life don’t fit well with your own perception of how things should be doesn’t make it wrong. So if you are intolerant of the religions, cultures and customs of people who are different from you in America, then do everyone a favor and just don’t study abroad. Ignorant intolerance abroad is about the worst thing you could possibly do. Not only does it foster the perception that all Americans are just as ignorant and intolerant as you, but it will also ensure that your experiences will be so crudely based upon your personal bias that you will likely deter others from wanting to go to the country to which you traveled. So please, be a tolerant, patient and understanding person when you go abroad.

Finally, I think the most important quality that a person should have if they are interested in going abroad is a strong will. Studying abroad is not for the weak-willed. Between culture shock, new food, new language and a new everyday life, it takes a certain degree of dedication to be abroad for a semester, let alone for a full year. If you are in a relationship (long-distance or not), it will be placed to the test. The time difference alone can be a difficult obstacle. Moreover, your schedule is going to be rather unpredictable. It is hard to make time for your significant other, friends and family on specific days that will work “every week.” Even if you aren’t doing something this Tuesday, chances are that next Tuesday your friends will plan a big outing that you’ll want to go to. Obviously, the distance is easier to manage for some than others, but it typically ends up being quite a strain on even the strongest relationships.

If culture shock does set in, there are a lot of ways to cope, but finding your personal coping mechanism takes time and even then, just because you get over culture shock once doesn’t mean it won’t show its ugly face again later. Studying abroad takes a great deal of inner confidence and will power. So definitely be sure you are in it for the long haul (or at least, for the duration of your program). Studying abroad is typically a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so make sure to cherish it for all it is worth.

Mia Knowles ’16 is a computer science major from Hampton, Va. She is studying abroad in Japan.