Dealing with discomfort in the study abroad context

Authored By:

CIEE Santiago

As a Study Abroad coordinator, I think we naturally focus on practical issues when we advise students on their experience abroad: you need a visa, this is how you get it; you need to fill out this or that form; you should pre-select courses before your arrival, here is the link; etc, etc. At CIEE, we also put a great emphasis on the cultural aspect, which is usually fun to navigate and sometimes, quite apparent. As well, we are heavily focused on the health and safety, and in this regard, we manage a large number of incidents concerning emotions and feelings in relation to the study abroad experience. This is where I'd like to take a moment to debrief—how prepared are you to face discomfort? 

We all start our study abroad experience with high expectations and a lot of good intentions, for sure. But then, when you truly are in your chosen location, you realize your Spanish teacher never warned you about the weird Chilean Spanish, and you feel like a failure! Advanced Spanish courses and you are not able to understand a single word right there at the airpoirt! Then, you were excited about your host family... until they pick you up and hug you and offer you lots of food right upon arriving at their home. What's all of this about? who are these p'eople who seem to love me so much already? And then, your classes start and you have no clue what the classrooms are, who to ask, or what to do... It's so frustrating! The overall experience seems to big, too complex, too confusing and causes you discomfort... a great deal of it... Your mind starts operating under the S.O.S. mode: now, everything seems threatening! 

Study abroad is fun—only it's an immersive situation, which implies putting all of your self at stake! Just as you prepared your trip in practical terms, my invitation is to prepare your heart and mind for the experience, specially, be prepared to face discomfort. 

On the one hand, you need understand how you react to uncomfortable situations: Can you recall any experiences in the recent past that have caused you a feeling of discomfort? How have you delt with your emotions in that situation? If you think you didn't actually succeed at it, what do you think you could have done to help yourself better? Along these lines, my call is to make you aware of the power you have to enjoy your experience (here, and in life in general!). Everyday, by establishing simple awareness practices, you can build the confidence that will help you succeed in your study abroad experience:

  • Don't be harsh on yourself—There is plenty of room for things to turn up confusing when you are abroad! Leave yourself room for making mistakes and leave self-judgment aside.
  • Many of the identities you have established in your normal context may stretch or shrink abroad. This can be very threatening and a source of anxiety! I have heard students say "they don't recognize themselves" or "this is not who they are." It may take time to adjust and you may discover that some labels do not work that well in your new context. Allow yourself to explore new angles to these identities and keep your heart open to discover the infinite richness of your own self. 
  • Look inside rather than outside—Your mind will automatically get into a defensive state when it feels threatened. Under this lense, others may seem to blame when things don't go as expected. However, you are not in control of what others do and most times, you will not be in control of situations... but what you do control is the way you manage your emotions! Find the personal emotional-management practices that best work for you and don't forget to pack them for your study abroad experience!