The most obvious challenge of studying abroad… and how to overcome it

A guest blog by Dr. Lital Helman  from GradTrain

Studying abroad is a wonderful experience. You meet international friends, expand your professional network, improve your language skills, and often times – have a superb education which may have not been possible in your home country.

The awesomeness of the study abroad experience does not mean that it is always easy. The most obvious challenge for people who study abroad is the language problem. I’m not talking only about the practical issue of figuring out traffic signs. I am talking about something deeper. Most international students are proficient in their own language, and typically have a very good ability to express themselves in their own language. Facing a situation where you cannot say exactly what you want, where you don’t sound sharp or funny, or where you don’t get the joke, is very frustrating and can chew into your self-confidence.

Everybody goes through this. Everybody. Even that beautiful girl that you think is taking it all easy – she’s also having her tough moments as an international student. I know this not only because I went through some of it this myself, but also because at GradTrain we build on the cumulative experience of many people who went through this process; Great, smart, wonderful people, who are suddenly out of their natural environment. And it gets tough sometimes.

gt1(photo by GradTrain)

The good news is that we also have ideas from GradTrain users and coaches on how to overcome those hurdles. Here are a few ideas that worked for different personality types and for people from different cultures. Hope some of it can work for you too!

A. Self-humor. Self-humor is a great way to break the ice and create positive social interactions out of awkward moments. One of our GradTrain coaches says that he used to burst out laughing every time he had made an embarrassing mistake. It made the people around him take him as an easy going, comfortable person to talk to. Another GradTrain coach, a biologist from Central Europe, wrote a full essay in English where she replaced the word “as” with, ahem… well – with the word “ass”. You know. A small mistake, right? She made such a joke out of her own mistake which helped everyone around her see it as a ‘no-big-deal’. People valued her attitude and it has not at all diminished her value in their eyes.

B. Understand that no-one expects you to be perfect. I know. You have such a high standard of yourself that you just cannot see yourself from the outside and understand that most people simply do not care. They do not expect foreigners to have great English or French or German, they do not expect you to behave as if you have been there for ever and ever. Who wants to have perfect people around them anyway? Relax and embrace it that you are different, you will make mistakes and this is OK. One of our coaches at GradTrain, an Israeli Law student, explained: I was very conscious of my accent. My English was not bad at all, but I knew that whenever I said something, people would think “where is she from” before they think “what does she have to say”. At some point I decided that I am going to acknowledge my accent and not be embarrassed anytime someone mentioned it. At some point, people started to say that my accent is “charming”, and “exotic”. Someone even said that he wished he had my accent because it “makes me stand out”. I admit that it never really stopped bothering me, but it’s so true that with the right attitude what you see as drawback can become an advantage.

C. Listen rather than talk. Most people think that they need to say interesting things in order to be interesting to their surroundings. That’s actually not true. People like the presence of people who listen well much more than that of people who talk all the time. A GradTrain coach from South America explained, “It made me quite a few friends, this annoying fact that I could not speak very well. I gravitated more to 1:1 conversations, because it was easier for me to understand what was going on language-wise. But even in a 1×1 world I felt awkward. I did not know what to say that would be appropriate and relevant. I resorted to listening. I asked questions. The person answered. I asked a new question. This worked. People thought I was the most awesome foreigner they’ve met, because the discussion obviously surrounded around things they were interested in, and with time I also learnt the language better and felt more comfortable contributing to the conversation.”

D. Offer language for language sessions. This is really cool. You can offer to teach Chinese, English, Spanish or German to the local students at your university, in return for French 1×1 classes or for something else. You can also organize a project like that in your class so that all foreigners would offer language sessions. One LLM class at Penn Law (LLMs is Masters in Law, usually designed for foreigners) offered language lessons to the domestic law students. This worked out really well. “I think people are generally uncomfortable in inequitable situations, says Jacob Bacon, a former UN advisor and GradTrain’s CEO. “When you get to sit 1:1 with people and can teach them your language in return for practicing theirs, it helps make the relationships more equitable and comfortable for both sides.”

E. Find international friends. This point is often times under-emphasized. But in this global world, you are never the only foreigner around. You are not even the only foreign person in the university. Look around. Find friends who are also foreigners – but not only people from your own country. It really helps. Foreign people speak more slowly, less unfamiliar slang, but still speak the only common language you all have.


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F. Don’t go through it alone! You are not likely to be the first person from your country who has ever studied in this university. We really believe in the power of the community to help each other and learn from the cumulative experience of each other. It’s really inspiring to get help from someone who is just like you who went through this process successfully. Then, when you finally make the journey and are studying abroad, it is really empowering to “coach” other people from your country to overcome the same challenges you already went through. Nothing gives you a sense of the progress that you have made more than helping others get to where you are. You can do it on GradTrain or find another way to position yourself to mentor others. The value you gain out of it is great. In short, the challenges of the study abroad adventure, even though they are likely to stay with you throughout your time abroad – they will not break you. There is still a lot you can do to make your experience so much better!

Thanks Dr. Helman!


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Lital Helman

Dr. Lital Helman is GradTrain’s VP. GradTrain connects people who want to study abroad for online video coaching meetings with people from a similar background who have gone through this process successfully, to get the most out of the study abroad experience.

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