A Homesick Student’s Guide to Spending the Holiday Season Abroad

Megan McClory is a History, Anthropology and East Asian Studies student with a minor in English at Brandeis University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 2016. Megan is an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-to-Study Program.

For me, November is always a hard month. By November, I’ve passed out of midterm hell and I wade through the month as a sort of holiday purgatory; it’s when I feel the most homesick. Normally, I don’t go home for Thanksgiving—the break is too short, the plane tickets too expensive—but as the air gets chillier and I bundle into my hoodies, I start thinking of my family. Without midterms to worry about anymore, I actually have time to think about them. Even though I can feel the holiday season in the air as the leaves start raining down, I know it will still be nearly two months before I see my family. This time, it’s threatening to hit me even harder—I won’t see them until May.

A Homesick Student's Guide to Spending the Holiday Season Abroad
I wasn’t kidding about the Christmas decorations. I found this one the day after Halloween.

Homesickness is a real threat when you’re studying abroad for an entire year. Make sure you consider that when you make your decision about where to go. I thought I’d be safe since, after all, Boston (where my home university is) isn’t exactly close to Chicago (where my family is). It’s not like I go home that often during a normal school year. Yet, when I pass the Christmas decorations that are already popping up in storefront windows (they don’t even have the “not-before-Thanksgiving” taboo to worry about in Scotland), I find myself thinking of my family’s holiday traditions. I imagine dinner with the cousins, visiting the Christkindlmarket in Chicago with my aunt, watching White Christmas with my mom…

But with that in mind, never let homesickness stop you.

It’s true that these memories are popping up and my stomach might wriggle uncomfortably when I think about what I won’t be doing this Christmas, but then I remember that I’ll be making plenty of new memories.

Spending the holiday season abroad might seem lonely, but look around you—you’re not the only one who can’t go home. You can make your own Friendsgiving; it might not be your grandma’s turkey, but at least the restaurants will still be open if your own cooking skills aren’t up to par.

A Homesick Student's Guide to Spending the Holiday Season Abroad
The autumn colors in George Square are absolutely breathtaking.

When you’re studying abroad for months at a time, you make a home for yourself. You meet people you can call family, whether they’re from your host country, your home university, or from across the world. Make plans with them, so you have something to look forward to as much as you look forward to the day finals are over at your home university and your mom picks you up from campus in December. Along with my flatmate, a girl from Japan who’ll also be around for the holidays, I’ve made plans to travel over winter break—I’ll be missing the Christkindlmarket in Chicago for the real deal in Berlin. I’ll be making new memories to keep alongside the ones I treasured growing up.

Making plans is a simple trick I learned over the past couple of Thanksgivings in Boston; instead of eating with my family, I’ve made it my own tradition to find a new museum to visit. Classes and homework and work make it difficult during the semester to visit all the museums, so this way I can start checking off the list I made of the places I want to visit.

Most of the time, this anticipation of something new is enough to keep the homesickness at bay, but when I still feel it seeping through, it’s easy enough to find someone to talk to. Homesickness is something we all experience here, after all. I’m not alone in that. I have friends from my program, I have flatmates from all over the world, and the IFSA-Butler staff are always willing to help.

So, even though I can’t help but feel that little nugget of sadness in my belly when I think of home, I can admire the riot of colors in the trees, smile at the leaves crunching under my feet and bury myself in my hoodie, happy and excited for what’s to come.

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