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A few years ago I spent one year studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark. That was one of the most challenging experiences of my life up to that point. However, thanks to those challenges, my life changed in ways I could have never imagined. At first I felt the same, but as time went on and I began reflecting, I realize how much my mindset and priorities have changed.
According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, there were over 6 million international students in 2019. And while everyone tells you it is a good idea to study abroad, no one tells you exactly how your life will change following your study abroad program. If you have any questions or concerns about that, this article is for you.
Here are 15 things you can expect during and after your study abroad experience:
Homesickness will hit you much sooner than you’d imagine. It will also go away much faster and easier than you’d expect. I felt quite strongly homesick for a day right after moving into my room. By the second day I had to go out to buy groceries and other things and I slowly settled into a new normal.
The beauty about studying abroad is that you have so many things to do right away that you don’t really get a chance to feel homesick. I had to register, figure out how to open a bank account, find my campus, attend welcome days at the university, buy groceries, prepare lunches, and more. On top of that, I was always discovering new and interesting things every time I went outside. A few days later when things calm down, you feel so used to your new reality that homesickness doesn’t really affect you anymore.
If you just moved abroad and are reading this at a time when you feel homesick, my advice to you is to get up and do something. Go take a walk and familiarize yourself with your new surroundings. Use your phone to take pictures of your neighbourhood. Consider starting an Instagram page where you can share those pictures. Join a free walking tour, or visit a museum.
And if you are preparing to go abroad, know that homesickness passes when you are busy.
The truth is that studying abroad requires a lot of sacrifices. Firstly you’ll have to prioritize saving money over going out with friends. Then you’ll have to prioritize what items you can take with you. Once you arrive at your destination you have to prioritize the things and activities you wish to spend money on. You also have to prioritize time for studying. After all you are not there on vacation.
Speaking of studying, if you are going abroad from North America, you may find a lighter, more relaxed course load. There is also more independent studying on your own free time than class learning. You may think that having more free time will allow you to do everything. However, if you’re not careful, time will slip away from you and you’ll find yourself totally unprepared the day before an exam. Planning a schedule and sticking to it is very important when you’re studying abroad. In addition to that, you also have to become very good at planning a budget. When studying abroad, you are limited to the money in your bank account. If you overspend, you can’t go and get a temporary job for extra spending money. Your student visa likely won’t allow you to work.
Independence is born out of necessity. When you go abroad, you won’t have anyone to do everything with. It becomes your responsibility to learn how to use a map and navigate around your new city. It falls on you to adapt to the new culture and new styles of teaching at the foreign university. You’ll have to decide for yourself where the best places to buy groceries are. You’ll have to rely on yourself to find the quickest route to class, and more.
When you just move to a new country, you may not make new friends right away. It takes time to meet people and get to know them. In the meantime you will have to learn to enjoy your own company. You will need to figure out how to have fun and, most importantly, deal with problems without support from friends and family.
This is a good thing because it forces you to become more resourceful, which will come in handy later in life. However, there is also a small downside; you can’t tell an independent person what to do. You will likely become more free-spirited and less likely to tolerate a traditional job. And that leads me to the next point.
Forget everything you (thought) you wanted prior to studying abroad. It will all change. I don’t know a single person who studied abroad and returned home to achieve everything they wanted before their experience abroad. Your dreams and goals will change when you return from abroad. This can be in small or large ways, but they will change nonetheless.
My goal prior to studying abroad was to do well, graduate, get a job a be happy. But during my stay in Denmark I was exposed to a lot of innovation an entrepreneurship (as well as the hardships of studying abroad in an expensive country) that I became more and more interested in earning income online. That time in Denmark pushed me to start researching and learning about starting a business. I would have never considered doing that before studying abroad. Looking back, this is quite shocking since my field of study is in nutrition. I attribute it all to studying abroad.
In addition to your life goals, little things from the way you dress to the foods you eat will also change.
During my stay in Denmark I found that Scandinavian people mostly wear nice quality, basic staple items in neutral colors (like black, grey, or beige). I am now more appreciative of basic pieces. A nice quality grey jumper can be worn year after year since it keeps its shape (better than fast fashion items) and doesn’t go out of style as it was never a trendy item to begin with. This way of thinking allows you to buy nicer quality items and save money in the long run. Financial security today feels better than the trendy clothes felt 10 years ago.
After a few weeks or months abroad, you will start to miss things you’d never imagine you could miss. I missed the white, steamed rice that comes with the Chinese food I used to get from my local Chinese grocery store. Since I was only abroad temporarily, it never made sense to buy a rice cooker. I just had to learn to live without it. But what a strange thing to miss.
I’m sorry to tell you, but you will embarrass yourself and that’s okay. In fact, the more you do it, the less embarrassing it feels. I can’t even tell you how many times I felt like an idiot for not knowing how to buy a bus ticket, or join the queue at the post office. You have to get a ticket form the corner, and when they call your number you can go speak to someone. None of the post offices in all the other countries I’ve been to use this system. But now I know.
Embarrassment can serve as a quick way to learn. And once you are aware of different ways of doing things, it makes future travel a lot less intimidating. It also gives you more confidence to go up to a local and ask a silly question like how to buy a subway ticket.
There is little to no routine when you’re studying abroad, especially if you’re only there for one semester. You may have to walk to class instead of driving, you may have to figure out how to use the laundry machines in another language, you may have to study differently that you did at home, etc. And all this is a good thing. Changing your routine from time to time allows you to reconnect with your emotional side and live a more engaging life. This allows you to observe things you wouldn’t otherwise notice.
The biggest benefit of this is when you return and try to go back to your previous routine. You will right away begin to see what doesn’t work for you and what leaves you feeling drained. Once you have awareness, you can make changes and improve your life, something you wouldn’t have done had you not studied abroad.
You are young and you should experience new ways of living.
Before I even applied to study abroad I fantasized about catching different flights and seeing new European cities every weekend. I reality, I stayed in Copenhagen during my entire stay. I didn’t travel abroad even once, not because I was scared, but because I couldn’t afford to.
Chances are that your study abroad program will cost you more than you originally anticipate. From higher that expected costs for food, having to buy things you forgot to pack, or unexpected fees (like the media fee Denmark has), it adds up. Don’t feel disappointed if you don’t get to see or do everything you wish for while studying abroad. Instead, use your free time to walk around the city and immerse yourself in the surroundings. Do some research and see which museums are free and on which day. Most cities have free activities. If you’re unsure where to find more information, join a Facebook group of expats living in that city.
When you’re gone for months of years from home, you will miss at least one birthday, engagement, wedding, anniversary, or other important life event. Truth is, this feels terrible. Even if you’re prepared for it, your feelings will still hit you on those days.
If you’re away for an extended period of time, it gets easier the longer you are away. However, the more events you miss, the more distanced you become from the people back home. Even if you call, you’re still not there in person to see what is going on. Next time you’re with your friends and they bring up something someone did during the event you missed, you won’t be able to contribute to that conversation. You’ll feel like an outcast, like you can’t connect with those people anymore.
Studying abroad might lead to you having a smaller group of friends. This seems terrible at first, but as time goes by you realize how energizing it is to have more time for yourself and your priorities. Besides, if your friendship can’t survive you being a few months away, then it wasn’t a strong friendship to begin with.
One thing I hate about living in North America is the high cost of utilities. Despite the fact that Denmark is considered an expensive country, I only paid around 30 CAD per month for internet while in Canada I pay 80 CAD per month. In other European countries you can get internet for even cheaper. I can say the same thing about cellphone plans. Before I left, I was paying 75 CAD per month for a student plan, and in Denmark I got a prepaid card and spent less than 5 CAD per month. What a difference!
In addition to that, many North American students who go abroad come back realizing how much better life can be without car ownership. Most other places in the world have good public transportation and people aren’t required to drive in order to get to work or to the store. Not owning a car saves you money on car payments, insurance, maintenance, repairs, gas, as well as the time and hassle of not having to find parking, deal with insurance, worry about theft, and more.
As a result of being exposed to new ways of living, many international students adapt new habits after they return home. After coming back to Canada, I didn’t get another phone plan. I found a prepaid option for 25 CAD per month (much cheaper that 75!) and moved close to downtown so I don’t have to drive and waste money on car ownership. I hear similar stories from others who also studied abroad. I even know people who chose to move abroad for good after their study abroad experience.
In my opinion, confidence doesn’t come from within. You can’t just decide to feel more confident and have all your insecurities melt away. Confidence comes from doing things and overcoming challenges, from proving to yourself that your are more capable than you ever thought. Studying abroad is a great time to build your confidence. You have to do all sorts of things you may not had done before. You will learn to read maps and make your way across a foreign city on your own, navigate a different banking system, pay bills, adapt to a new way of living, and more. However, when studying abroad, you’re not going in blindly. You will have all of the important things (like documentation and accommodation) sorted out before leaving your home country. So you will be out of your comfort zone while still having a little safety net.
You won’t feel more confident right away. It will happen little by little until you return home when it will hit you all of a sudden. After doing everything by yourself in a foreign country, you won’t have much sympathy for that friend who lacks the confidence to go to the cafeteria without you.
Life feels endless when you are young, but as you get older you realize how quickly time passes. This is especially tru when you keep yourself busy. One year goes by in the blink of an eye.
Hopefully this realization will force you take more time for enjoyment. Simply going to a walk outside and feeling the wind in your hair. Strolling around your neighbourhood and observing the different buildings. That’s what I did during my last week in Copenhagen. While other people took time to relax after finals, I walked as much as I could and tried to take in as many sights as possible.
When I returned to Canada I went to a local coffeeshop where I saw some interesting locally made cider. I tried to buy a can, but they wouldn’t let me take home. According to government regulations I had to drink it there; I could not take alcoholic beverages outside of the coffeeshop. This really shocked me as it was a simple can of cider (not hard liquor) I was trying to buy and I had become accustomed to seeing all sorts of alcoholic beverages in all stores in Denmark, available for anyone to purchase them.
Another shock was the over-friendliness of those in customer service. In European countries, you don’t even speak to those at the checkout. They scan you items, you pay, and that’s it. No one asks you what plans you have for the rest of the day. As an introvert I quite like that. It’s no stranger’s business what I’m about to do after paying for my groceries.
This won’t happen right away. Maybe months, or even years after your study abroad experience you may look back and see how your study abroad experience changed you. You may notice that your friends who stayed behind seem immature and petty about small things, while you’re able to see the bigger picture in life.
Reflecting on your past experiences is a good thing because it makes you question what works for you and what doesn’t, when you’re happy and when you’re not. It is the first step in improving your life so you can be happier and more fulfilled.