Does Preparation Get Rid of the Challenges of Study Abroad Experience?

(photo by: www.linkedin.com)

A few weeks ago, I met a former study abroad student. I love connecting with study abroad students at all stages (past, present and future) but whenever I meet someone who completed their study abroad, I can’t help regaling about the experience. Although we had many differences in our experiences – hers was for 1 semester in London, mine was a year in Paris- we both acknowledged that there were so many aspects of the cultural immersion experience that we were not prepared for but could’ve been. During our walk down memory lane, my new study abroad buddy made the most interesting comment. She questioned that had we had been prepared for the challenges that come with moving and integrating into a foreign culture, would the payoff of emotional growth and change have been as great?

This comment really got me thinking. I am the queen of preparation is the key to study abroad success, however, she had a point. I couldn’t help but wonder if there is something about the element of surprise that helps you to learn and grow more than if you knew the challenge was coming? Or what if you could anticipate certain situations but not all of them? Would you still be able to experience the challenge (necessary for learning and growth) without tail spinning into frustration if you knew of the obstacles that lie ahead?

To answer these questions, I started thinking of situations or professions which require you to be prepared yet still throw you into surprise situations. ***Please note the following is based off of general knowledge and not 1st hand experience. Service men/women, trauma doctors at a hospital and astronauts came to mind. These are people who are trained to handle practically every foreseen circumstance so that when something happens, they are not panicking or frustrated but rather can start an appropriate plan of action to resolve the situation. Does this mean that astronauts, service men/women and trauma doctors are never challenged or surprised? No! It just means that they don’t react the way that someone who had no clue what to expect or what to do would act. These professions show that being prepared for a situation doesn’t make it less challenging; it just means that you handle it better. Which leads me back to my never-ending mantra of preparation is the key to study abroad success.

(preparation is part of the job for astronauts)

astronaut(photo by: en.wikipedia.org)

I acknowledge that my personal and linguistic growth came because I had so many difficulties in my time abroad. I still had an overall great time but hold firm that knowing what to expect of Parisian life and cultural immersion would have been beneficial to helping me acclimate quicker to life abroad. I am reminded constantly that preparation can help make realistic expectations of the study abroad experience each time I see the search term “I regret study abroad” on the Twenty in Paris dashboard. This former student was spot-on when she said that you cannot be prepared for everything- that’s true. Even if you read every study abroad book and blog, there will still be something culturally and linguistically new. This is because culture and language are truly living things in a constant in a state of evolution.

But there are core things that you can be prepared for; the constants of the immersion and study abroad experience which do not change. For example -the experience of being on your own; the experience of dealing with a bad day or difficult situation alone; stepping outside of your comfort zone; speaking a foreign language every day and on a variety of topics; a new school environment; core cultural customs and attitudes that are different from your own; accepting and embracing new things/ideas/ food; the idea that you are the foreigner and do things differently and not everyone around you. These are the things for which you’ll want to (and can be) prepared. It is these areas of the immersion process into a new life abroad which will still be challenging (in a good way) even with preparation. Being prepared for an experience doesn’t remove the challenges; it simply gives you the foundation to build realistic expectations and the means to handle it better than if you weren’t prepared at all.



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