Studying abroad can be a fantastic opportunity for students looking to immerse themselves in another culture. Travel is heavily romanticized, especially in major European cities with breathtaking sights. You are there to experience as much as possible while balancing a social life, mental health and schoolwork. So, what qualities make for a good study abroad student? And what happens when you get tired?
I talked to students who studied abroad this past semester, and each described their study abroad experience as one of the best and most rewarding of their lives. However, it also turned out to be one of the most exhausting experiences these students lived through.
Abby Medvic is a rising senior at the University of Pittsburgh and studied abroad for three and a half months in Madrid, Spain. In January of this year, Medvic was extremely nervous. She was going to live with a host family in Spain and wasn’t sure what to expect. She hadn’t had contact with them and didn’t know anyone in her program yet, so the anticipation of it all was overwhelming. It was exciting, of course, but the unfamiliarity left Medvic feeling anxious about leaving home for the semester. But what she didn’t know was that it was all just nerves.
“It was even better than I expected because I had no idea what to expect,” said Medvic. “I was just making the worst possible situation. For example, I was living with a host family, and before I even met them, I was thinking, ‘What if they are mean and I hate them?’ And all this horrible stuff. So, I would tell myself prior to studying abroad, just chill. You don’t need to be thinking about the worst possible things.”
Medvic doesn’t recall many downsides to her three-month stay in the Spanish city, but she did say that the hustle and bustle of city life certainly took a toll on her body. While traveling may seem idyllic in pictures on Instagram, behind it are miles of walking, train riding, and flights that aren’t easy on physical or mental health.
“I never really felt like I could relax. I always had to be doing something,” Medvic said. “I would always feel guilty if I was just in my apartment not doing anything all day.”
This sense of urgency to be constantly on the go and explore was a typical response among the students I spoke with. For example, Hannah Vorndran, also a rising senior at the University of Pittsburgh, said that even with her jam-packed program schedule, she still felt the need to always be busy during her time in Italy.
“Our program was unique in that we had a lot of activities for [classes] that were outside of the classroom,” Vorndran said. “We went on [multiple] field trips to different areas of Tuscany as well as some things in Florence too. And when we didn’t have school-related things to do, I felt conflicted between taking chill time to rest and going to do something fun around the city. I almost felt guilty sitting and doing nothing.”
Nobody is claiming that having too much to do was a problem. But the unspoken pressure to take in as much of the experience as possible regularly conflicted with the instinct to let your body rest. So, one thing to remember if you plan to study abroad is that even though you are there to make as many memories as possible, it is still important to listen to your body when it’s telling you to take a break.
Anna Ligorio, another rising senior at the University of Pittsburgh, was also subjected to burnout during her stay in Florence, Italy. However, her experiences and the people she met significantly outweighed any negative feelings, especially upon returning home and reflecting on the trip.
“The biggest thing I took from this experience abroad was just that it was so awesome to travel and have an opportunity to go somewhere else. It was incredible to see Italy and Florence, and it was so beautiful and different from how it is in America,” Ligorio said. “I also loved meeting friends from Pitt that I didn’t really know well, but then immediately once we got there, we all kind of bonded together and formed a group of friends, which I thought was great.”
Medvic recalled being extremely nervous about making friends in her program, especially since its duration was a whole semester. But she found out rather quickly that with everyone in the same boat, it was much easier to make friends than she anticipated.
“I was so overly scared that I wasn’t going to make friends,” Medvic said. “But then I did, and it wasn’t that challenging, but I feel like the most challenging part was just the anxiety, nerves and the freaking out beforehand.”
While Medvic stressed the importance of having friends to spend time with, she also shared that to have a successful experience, in her opinion, it is important to put yourself out there and value independence. In addition, Medvic said there would be challenging situations that are unfamiliar to those in the States, and you must be prepared to deal with them head-on.
“I feel you have to be susceptible to being the most independent that you can be,” Medvic said. “You can’t be someone who’s just not going to explore or not going to want to make friends or not going to want to make the most out of it. It definitely has to be something that you take control of while you’re there.”
Vorndran, who also met many new friends on her trip to Italy, agrees that putting yourself out there is essential. But she also stressed the significance of having an open mind, not only regarding your program but also the culture and people native to the area.
“I think it’s important for study abroad students to be open-minded and inclusive of different people and cultures,” Vorndran said. “Being abroad entails assimilating into a new culture and adjusting quickly. With all the new things you’ll experience, it’s important to be open-minded and ready for anything.”
Studying abroad can be an enriching experience. But before committing, it is vital to understand the physical and mental expectations of the journey, how to be adaptable and the commitment you make to respecting the culture and individuals that live in whatever destination you’re making home for your stay abroad. Safe travels!