Navigating Your First Week Abroad

In Go Abroad by Shelley Story

You’re Here!!


You’re just a little excited right about now.

You’ve spent months — maybe even years — dreaming about and planning for your semester abroad, and now it has begun!

All of the excitement and nerves and anticipation and hopes have met reality in that moment when you landed at the airport and waited for your bags and realized “I’m here! This thing is really happening!”

You made your way to your accommodation — maybe you did it on your own or maybe someone met you at the airport and helped — and you thought:

“Hmm, yes, I suppose it’s small, but how charming! I can see old buildings and at least one statue from my window.”


Your new view?

After the 22-hour series of flights and layovers, all you really wanted was a long, hot shower, so you found the bathroom and discovered that whoever sets the temperature cap on the water heater has a different definition of “hot” than you do.

No matter, you’re abroad!

You’re Living The Dream (Partly)

That scalding/frigid water will make for a great story on your blog. You’re actually looking FORWARD to the little hiccups that will inevitably present themselves because they’re part of the experience. And they build character, right? Right?

Yes, they do. Not only do the unexpected twists and turns of life abroad build character, but they boost your resiliency, cultural sensitivity, coping skills, and a whole host of other positive benefits, depending on which twists and turns you encounter.

What’s critical, in these first couple of weeks abroad, is to acknowledge and understand the cumulative effect of constantly experiencing one unfamiliar thing after the other. Even the good experiences consume your energy in a way that feels both more exhilarating and more taxing when you’re in a culture other than your own.

When you also account for the more difficult experiences, you can find yourself quickly depleted, discouraged… and feeling like this whole thing is just a little less sexy than you expected.

And Also… This Isn’t Exactly How Your Dream Went

It makes sense. Think about it:

1. You start the semester with jet lag, so by the time you wake up the first few mornings, half the day is gone.

Or, you have to get up for orientation and then you doze through the whole thing.
Or, you get on the right schedule by simply not getting enough sleep.

2. You’re eating food and drinking water with different microorganisms and different spices & flavors.
3. You’re meeting dozens of new people each day.

Which ones will become friends? Whom can you trust? Who really gets you?

4. You’re navigating a new home, new school, and new city.

Each has its own rules — published and unpublished.

All your new acquaintances are navigating the very same landscape and may seem “better” at it than you.

5. You’re trying to get the basics down.

Food, school supplies, cell phone or internet service… the list goes on.

6. AND you’re hoping to maintain that feeling of excitement & joy that was so strong just a few days ago!

It’s no wonder your balloon might be feeling a little deflated.

So… How ‘Bout You Give Yourself a Break?

Again, what’s important is just that you recognize how much you’re putting yourself through!

Take a few moments each day just to breathe, and appreciate, and congratulate yourself for managing this ENTIRELY NEW WORLD as well as you have.


Realize that by the end of this time abroad, you’ll know the city like the back of your hand, be able to get by in the local language or dialect, and be so integrated into your environment that you won’t even remember feeling overwhelmed.

But right now, in these first few weeks, it’s completely normal to feel disappointed or disillusioned. Whether they admit it or not, everyone experiences periods of frustration and difficulty when adjusting to a new home and new culture.

When you think of studying abroad, you think of romantic sunsets viewed from the Eiffel Tower with your fluent-in-English local love interest, or skiing in the Swiss Alps with your ten new best friends. What’s not usually part of the picture: feeling lonely even though your tiny shared space is full of people, or feeling way too visible because you’re instantly tagged as a foreigner.

Instagram will produce infinite evidence of the former, and almost no reference to the latter.

Despite what social media would have you believe, ALL of these experiences (and much, much more) are part of the richness of striking out on your own and living outside your safety nets and comfort zones.

Realize It Will All Be Part of Your Story

From this point forward. Embrace the thrilling and the mundane, the challenge and the ease.

Be kind to yourself and allow whatever reactions are authentic for you. It’s from there that you’ll begin to experience even more than you could have dreamed for in your life abroad.