Kelly Slatery was a Cognitive Science student at the University of Virginia and attended the IFSA-Butler Spanish Translation and Lingsuitics in Buenos Aires Program in Buenos Aires, Argentina in fall 2016. Kelly was an International Correspondent through the Work-to-Study program.
A defining characteristic of study abroad is the mass of changes coming at you from all directions, all the time, especially in the first weeks. I don’t know about you, but I’m not very good with change.
Be it switching up my regular breakfast granola or trimming the ends off my hair, it takes some serious adjustment for me to figure out how to be happy again with my new “normal.”
My first time abroad last summer in Shanghai was completely overwhelming. I struggled to figure out how to cope with my unfamiliar surroundings while still making the most of my experience. And all without my support network from back home to keep me going. Now, abroad for the second time, I’m more mentally prepared for the initial culture shock that left me feeling so lost last summer. Here are my four biggest takeaways that have gotten me through these first weeks in Buenos Aires with as little pain and as much fulfillment as possible:
1. Lean into discomfort
This is a big one. We’ve established that change is uncomfortable. But embracing new experiences, different ways of doing things, and unfamiliar ideas is how we grow as people. So what does that mean? It means that every time you get that weird feeling in your stomach that tells you not to try something, that’s an opportunity to grow: go for it!
For instance, I’m not one for making small talk. When I was in the taxi on the way to meet my host mom from the airport, I wanted nothing less than to make small talk in Spanish with the cab driver. But instead I decided to suck it up and asked every question that came to mind. Because of that small effort, I ended up learning a thing or two about Argentine history and the sites around Buenos Aires. And I got to try out my Spanish before meeting my host mom! So the first time someone in your class starts to bemoan the U.S. political system to you, don’t run away—embrace the opportunity to learn about another perspective and grow!
2. Forgive yourself for needing time to adjust
We all need it. No matter who you are or what your background is, studying abroad is going to be a huge adjustment. Believe it or not, no one expects you to hop off the plane ready to tackle this new place full of new customs and a transportation system you’ve never seen before in your life—no one, except maybe you! Expect to have moments, especially in the first weeks, where you feel like you’re lost or you just can’t handle it. When I find myself in moments like these, I like to take a minute to reflect. Journaling is a great way to do that because getting everything down on paper really lessens the feeling of being overwhelmed. I also keep a blog for family and friends, which helps me take a step back and see the bigger picture. So if what you really need is a burger and fries or to watch an episode of your favorite TV show on Netflix, that’s OKAY. A little semblance of home can go a long way in giving you the courage to face more new things tomorrow.
3. Revisit your motivation to study abroad
Only minutes after saying goodbye to my family, I was crying in the airport bathroom. Then I realized that I had to stop because at some point it becomes socially unacceptable to stay in a public bathroom stall. So I took a deep breath and thought about why I chose to study abroad in the first place: to get better at dealing with difference and change. Was this goal worth not seeing my family for five months? Yes. Worth having to stuff my whole life into two big bags? Yes. Would I have been able to accomplish this goal by going back to the same school for another semester? Maybe… But not nearly to the extent I would be able to in Buenos Aires. Now, whether I’m having a moment of I can’t do this or making a decision as simple as what I want to order off the menu, I pause. I take a second to think, “What will help me grow?” and proceed with intentionality. I’m abroad for a reason, and it helps to remember that.
4. Say YES more!
To this day, I still regret that weekend trip to a gorgeous mountain range that I passed on because it seemed like too much organization and money at the time.
This is a good mantra to keep in mind in your first weeks, but also for your entire time abroad. At first, you may find it hard to make yourself get out and do things. But trust me when I say that just doing something is the best thing you can do. It will distract you from the things you miss about home and also allow you to form solid friendships that last the entire semester. And no matter how long your program, I promise you your time is short—take advantage of it while it lasts! When I think about my time in China, I think about that fancy dinner we all splurged on or that day we went sightseeing even though we had homework. However, to this day, I still regret that weekend trip to a gorgeous mountain range that I passed on because it seemed like too much organization and money at the time. If I could go back, I would have done it. So learn from my mistake and just say YES!
To sum it all up, you can do this and you can love this. Just take a deep breath and seize the day!