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What to Expect from Your Study Abroad/International Experience

rainbow study abroadSome of us generally expect that what happens in life is the result of luck, fate, or powerful others (e.g., a God or gods, government, institutions). Others of us tend to see what happens in life as the result of our own choices. Famous psychologist Julian Rotter called this trait or characteristic “locus of control.” Those who tend to think that what happens is in others’ hands have more of an external locus of control; those who believe in the power of their own choices have more of an internal locus of control. Put simply, what you believe and expect can change what is possible in your life. If you believe you can’t – you won’t – and probably won’t even try. If you believe you can – you might – even if it doesn’t go as smoothly as planned.

What You Expect Changes What You Experience

Many students approach an international experience expecting that it will change their lives, and in fact, research shows that for many or most people, it does – yet in a variety of ways that differs for each person. Some find they really enjoy a new culture, while some find the new ways very confusing or aggravating and cannot wait to return to the comforts of “home” (most people vary between these two perspectives in different phases or even from day to day). Some people find their academic “callings” and careers during an international experience, whether they stay in the United States to pursue their professions or return to their countries of origin. Some find their life’s passions, a new religion or philosophy, their best friends, their romantic partners, or even – themselves.

While you are most likely both excited and nervous about going to a new place, remember that study abroad – like life itself – is really a journey, not a destination. A series of moments and events will change who you are and how you see the world in perhaps both good AND difficult ways. What is most true about your international experience is that you get out of it what you put into it. If you journey to a new place expecting to “just” get an education and degree, you will likely spend most of your time studying and pursuing that goal, without getting to know what the new culture and people have to offer. In this case you might think of your journey as highway or freeway that carries you straight and fast to your destination, with only pit stops to refuel. If you expect to make new friends and get new cultural experiences, then – with some winding trails, detours, and bumps in the road – you will most likely pursue these options – with some interesting travels and scenic view side-roads along the way.

Ways that You Can Get More Satisfaction from Your Experience

  • Expect great things – and keep track of them. Satisfaction with a study abroad experience is most likely to happen when you set concrete goals for your time abroad and determine to see them through. Before you leave home, ask yourself things like, “Why am I doing this – going to this country, this school, at this time? What am I hoping to get out of it – to learn, to change, to grow? What are three things I would like to do while I am abroad?” Many people find journaling or blogging helpful to keep track of their own thoughts, to relieve stress, to let friends and family back home know what is happening, and/or to help them remember things that happened to them while they are abroad. While everything seems poignant and important while you experience it, you may be surprised just how fast memories fade. Having your own words (and pictures!) to help you remember what you are learning and doing can make the experience more memorable in the long run.
  • Expect stress – and see it as a normal and important process. Research from myriad disciplines makes it pretty clear that stress is normal during the cultural adjustment process. When most people think “stress,” they just mean the bad kind, but scientists like Hans Selye talk about both good stress (eustress) and bad stress (distress). Some days being in a new country and making new friends can be exciting (eustress). Other days it can feel discouraging (distress). If you do not expect this, the stress can get to feel overwhelming, depressing, or anxiety provoking. If instead you see stress as a something that is a normal challenge to overcome – something to work through – it can help you be more productive and satisfied. Life rains on everyone – whether you see it as getting soaked or a chance to splash in puddles is up to you. You only see the rainbow when the sun is behind you and you stand with your head up, facing the rain.
  • Remember that no one is all-powerful. No matter how much you believe you can make a difference in the world, in some instances, you just can’t. Tsunamis, earthquakes, and other natural disasters happen. Governments make laws. Universities have policies (pay particular attention to ones about “plagiarism” if this is an unfamiliar idea). Families change, and people age while you are away. Some things in life require us to just accept them and move on – or to adjust with them.
  • Change your perception of what happens. When I traveled to make my first professional research presentation for my graduate school adviser’s esteemed colleagues in the north of England, I left hours ahead of time. The train ran late. I missed lunch. I could not find the bus stop. Finally – in the days before cell phones so I could not explain my saga – as I put my hand on the doorknob of the building with 5 minutes to spare, a bird pooped all over my head and shoulder. I ran to the bathroom, where people were complaining about the irresponsible lecturer who had not yet shown up. I entered the room and said hello to the roomful of people who apologized profusely that the speaker had not yet arrived, at which time I embarrassedly raised my hand and muttered, “That’d be me” (they were expecting someone much older). I could have at that instant seen the whole endeavor as a failure before it started. Instead, I took a deep breath, pulled up a tall stool, and laughed as I began my presentation by telling the story of my journey. I ended my story with the bird and the American saying, “s@*t happens.” The crowd laughed and explained the British consider getting pooped on to be good luck (which, believe it or not, happened to me TWICE that trip…). I then began my presentation on cultural adjustment – explaining that when bad things happen during cultural changes, some people crumble and some people shine. It was, perhaps, the best talk I’ve ever given.

In summary, in the words of one of my colleagues, Jim Ewers, “You must first perceive it, and if you believe it, you can achieve it.” Take a deep breath, collect your thoughts and your hopes, and enjoy the journey – detours and all.

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