“I don’t think I can do this anymore”. This was the text I sent to my mother as I waited in LAX before boarding my flight to Australia. I’d been outside of the country once, I considered myself a homebody, and I was the first person in my family to study abroad. Being the first to do anything can be especially terrifying. I had no family to ask about what it’s like to study abroad, and I had no one who really understood what I was going through. The response of “it’s all going to be ok/I’m sure it will all work out” is not incredibly comforting, especially when it comes from someone who has no idea what you’re going through.
I sat in the airport scared to death, my heart racing, and tears running down my face. I don’t think I’ve ever been so petrified. But by the time I left Australia, I was sad to leave. Study abroad is a roller-coaster of emotions, but the highs and lows of this roller-coaster can be amplified when you are the first person in your family to study abroad, and no one fully understands what you are feeling. Here are my top 5 tips for how to cope while being the first in your family to study abroad:
Get on the Plane!
It sounds simple, right? But honestly this is one of the most important things. I almost didn’t get on the plane. If I had been in the airport an hour longer, I probably wouldn’t be writing this, because I wouldn’t have boarded. I would have missed so much. My four and a half months abroad were some of the best experiences of my life. It can be hard and you may feel alone in the experience, but you aren’t. You will always have a support network, and you’ll soon realize that they don’t necessarily have to understand what you are going through.
Find a Support Group
Find someone who can listen. I mean really listen. Someone who will hang on to every word you say, not cut you off, and allow you to express whatever emotion you are feeling. For me, this was my mother. I could call her at any hour, any day, and she would make time to talk to me. She would even answer my calls when I accidentally called at three in the morning (time differences can be so difficult!). Whether I was panicked or excited, she waited for me to tell her what was wrong and did her best to give me advice, even when she knew I probably wouldn’t listen. It is also easier than you may imagine to find a support group while abroad. One of the best things about IFSA is the community that is created among all of the students abroad. They become a second family and a huge source of support when things get tough. The IFSA staff is also always there to help and I would encourage anyone who needs support to reach out to them because they are fantastic!
Do Your Research Before You Go
I am always a lot calmer when I know what to expect. When you don’t have any family members to tell you what study abroad is like or give you advice, it’s only natural to turn outwards and search for more information. This inclination is a good thing too. Embrace it! The more you learn, the better you will feel. I spent hours in the weeks before my trip trying to learn as much as possible about my host country. I wanted to know everything from personal accounts, to the best places to visit. When I was researching, I relied heavily on blog posts and video blogs from students who had been on the same IFSA program, in addition to the advice for preparing to study abroad provided by IFSA’s website. The other main resources I used were travel sites like Trip Advisor to help me find amazing places to visit while abroad and turn my fear into excitement. What I also wanted during my research was reassurance that the experience would be amazing, and that even though there will be days that are frustrating or scary, the good far outweighs the bad. I understand what it’s like to be the first in your family to go abroad. It’s terrifying, but so exciting at the same time. I can promise from experience that it is worth it and the scary emotions will be temporary but the positive memories (as cheesy as it sounds) are forever.
Don’t Be Afraid to Reach Out for Help
When you arrive in your host country, it can be overwhelming. A new culture with new people and sometimes even a new language await. Immerse yourself in the culture of your host country, but don’t feel bad if you need to take a day away from it and try to reconnect to your culture. Reach out for help if you need it, whether academically or emotionally, there is always someone who is willing to help. The resident staff is amazing and very approachable to any concerns you have. In Australia, our resident staff encouraged us to come visit the office, meet for coffee, and attend all of the amazing cultural events that IFSA holds throughout the year. These events (such as Country Life Weekend for those in Australia) are an amazing chance to get away from campus and reunite with other students who will better understand your struggles. If you need a day to yourself, or you want to be surrounded by other Americans, it’s okay. Go ahead and do it. However, while taking a day every once in a while is fine, be sure you don’t shut yourself off from the culture of your host country.
Take in EVERY Moment
Last but not least, take in every moment. Even the bad ones. They help shape you and make the great parts of study abroad feel even better. Study abroad will be an incredible experience regardless of the country you go to. You will meet so many different people, have new experiences, and soon enough your host country will begin to feel like a second home.
Regardless of where you travel to, it will be one of the best experiences of your life. I already really miss Australia and want to plan my next trip there. Studying abroad made me more confident and independent, and shaped me into a better person. I learned to communicate with people of a different culture and really appreciate the amazing diversity of ideas and people around the world. Now, I can act as an advocate and help other people get past concerns about study abroad. If anyone in my family now decides to go abroad, I can be there for them and guide them through the experience. Being the first person in your family to go abroad can be stressful and scary but following these tips and reaching out to a support group will help calm your fears.
Rachel Howdyshell is a student at Wake Forest University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler Study Abroad Programs in Australia.