With a whole new crop of American students heading off on international study experiences this August and September, it’s the role of the counselors working with them (not just at universities but also in agencies or private practice) to help them feel prepared for this experience. This came to my attention when I recently gave a presentation to American undergraduates about adjusting to life in China. They had just arrived here and while some had been to China before and spoke a bit of Chinese, I realized there was quite a bit that they weren’t aware of regarding how to have a positive study abroad experience.
Of course it's impossible to put the entire content of our discussion into a blogpost, but I thought it could be useful for counselors working with students who are planning to study abroad to have a short list of some pointers.
1) Adjust your expectations - Everyone has heard the stories of how time spent studying abroad is "an amazing, life-changing experience." And of course it most often is, but not always in the way that people expect. Many students can have an overinflated concept in their minds of their study destination, which can set them up to feel disappointed when things don't go as planned or aren't what they expected. When I worked with American students in Italy, many of them fell into this trap. Because of movies they had seen about the "romantic life" in Italy, or even previous vacations taken with family, they found it extremely hard to deal with the frequent challenges that are a part of adjusting to life abroad. Getting lost, slow restaurant service, broken air conditioning, not understanding a professor, having accomodation smaller than or different to home: all of these are normal parts of the study abroad experience and in many ways are the experiences that create personal growth while abroad. But because of my students’ unrealistic expectations, they would often find these things extremely distressing. If students can be be aware of this before departure, it can be easier for them to view unexpected events as all part of the adventure, rather than as catastrophes.
2) Find friends who know the ropes - In line with the first tip of expecting some challenges while abroad, it important to connect with other students, both local and international, who have been at the university for a while and know how things work as quickly as possible. It can be vital to know who to call when they’re in a pinch, or even just knowing decent places to have lunch or get laudry done can help students feel more quickly at home. And of course it makes time abroad a much richer experience to connect with a diversity of students beyond just the group that they have come with.
3) Plan ahead academically - University coursework done outside the US is usually very different from what students are used to at their universities in the US. Courses and grading may be very different, often the grade depends on a single exam (which may be oral - something we are really not used to in the US) and there may not be a bunch of grades for homework or classwork. It’s also important for students to find out in advance exactly what scores they need in order for the coursework to count for credit or how exactly the grades are converted. Many students don’t learn this information until there is a problem, and then of course at that point it is too late to do anything about it. No one wants to discover at the end of the semester that their work isn’t going to count, so make sure students know to inform themselves in advance.
4) Build "home time" into your schedule - When arriving in a new country many students find themselves carried away on a cultural “honeymoon” of new experiences: new friends, going to parties, touring, trying new food, essentially running at 100mph 24 hours a day. In order to prevent all of this from coming to a crash point, it’s a good idea for students to build “home time” into their schedule, where they spend time doing familiar things, whether it be exercise, yoga, journaling, a hobby, phoning friends back home, emailing, etc. It doesn’t need to be a huge chunk of time that they spend on these familiar activities but I usually recommend having some sort of “touchpoint” of familiarity built into each day’s schedule. This can help students to not only maintain a sense of balance but also help cope with any homesickness.
5) Seek out the positive! - Yes, there will be challenges, yes, there will be classmates who choose to only constantly complain about these challenges, yes, there will be days when they really miss the friends & family who know them well. But of course the study abroad experience is also an incredibly unique opportunity to learn, so encourage your clients to get creative about making the most of it!
________________________________________________________________________ Christine Forte is a counselor to the international population in Shanghai, China. You can learn more about her work here: www.balancedheartcounseling.com