General Education

How to Get Out of Your Comfort Zone When Studying Abroad

How to Get Out of Your Comfort Zone When Studying Abroad
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Susan Shor August 30, 2019

Who says leaving familiarity behind has to be jarring and uncomfortable? Here's how you can choose the study abroad program that's right for you—and approach it with an open mind.

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Has your college routine become predictable? Do you yearn for new experiences? Have you binge-watched every foreign film Netflix has to offer? You may know where this is going, but we’ll say it anyway: It might be the right time to consider studying abroad. Immersing yourself in a new culture can be life-changing, but you’ll have to be willing to step outside your comfort zone.

Reasons to study abroad

Still thinking about it? Good. Here are some possible reasons to get serious about living and attending school in a foreign country:

  • You’ll grow your communication and, in most cases, foreign language skills
  • You’ll form relationships with a diverse group of people
  • You’ll gain a global perspective on your chosen field of study
  • You’ll experience new cultures, traditions, and beliefs
  • You’ll view your native country through a new lens
  • Adding international experience to your resume can help you stand out in a pool of job or graduate school candidates
  • You’ll learn more about yourself


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Types of study abroad programs

Your college or university may have its own study abroad program. A benefit of choosing a school-affiliated program is that many of the courses you’ll take overseas integrate into your area of study. This path is also an easy way to ensure you’ll gain credit for the courses you take.

Colleges and universities commonly offer these types of study abroad programs:

  • Study center: These programs have dedicated on-site staff who are typically responsible for arranging housing, planning student excursions and short trips, and emergency support.
  • Instructor-led: Faculty from your school teaches a course abroad. These programs tend to focus on one discipline, allowing you to gain a deeper understanding of a topic.
  • Host school/exchange: You enroll in a local university and take classes with local students. In some cases, you may live with a local family.

If your school doesn’t have a study abroad program, you can enroll directly in a school at your preferred destination or pursue a program offered by a third-party organization.

Who are the best students for a study abroad program?

You don’t have to be the top student to study abroad, but that doesn’t mean the experience is right for everyone. Here are some characteristics that you’ll need—whether you possess them before your departure or develop them as you go.

  • Independent
  • Resilient
  • Adaptable
  • Curious
  • Comfortable with a language barrier
  • Culturally aware
  • Self-aware
  • Communicative
  • Courageous

If you haven’t traveled outside of the U.S., now is a great time to start. Unsure if you can swing it? Try joining a group on your own to see if you feel comfortable talking to and making friends with unfamiliar people. Go to a museum or landmark on your own. How do these experiences make you feel? If your answer is, “energized,” than studying abroad might be worth it.

Benefits of getting out of your comfort zone with study abroad

Put credits toward your degree

A concern many students have when planning programs is whether credits taken in a foreign country will count towards their degrees. Transferable credits vary from program to program—and school to school. In this case, your best bet is to figure out which classes you’ll be taking during your study abroad program and have your school approve them.

It’s a process that calls for routine visits to your school’s study abroad and registrar’s office, and constant communication with your academic advisor or dean. Once you have a concrete plan of the courses you’ll take, confirm that you’ll be permitted to enroll in classes at home for the semester following your return.

Special connections to the type of work you want to do

Not sure which destination best suits your area of study? For linguistics majors, immersive programs are an excellent way to grow their language skills
beyond the classroom. Art history majors can seek out Florence, the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance and home to many of history’s greatest innovators, artists, and thinkers. For English majors, England, a country known for perfecting the craft of the modern novel. STEM students can pursue academic research across almost every continent.

If your area of study requires substantial coursework, consider pursuing a program during the summer, or your winter or spring break. Some programs are as short as one to two weeks in length and far easier to incorporate into a rigorous major than the traditional semester-long approach.

How far out of your comfort zone should you go?

According to the U.S. Department of State, 325,339 U.S. students studied abroad for academic credit during the 2015-2016 academic year, a 4 percent increase over the previous year. Of their preferred destinations, these are the top ten:

  • The United Kingdom
  • Italy
  • Spain
  • France
  • Germany
  • China
  • Ireland
  • Australia
  • Costa Rica
  • Japan

A U.S. News and World Report survey of 7,000 young adults around the world resulted in a list of slightly more unexpected destinations, with Malaysia taking the number one spot. The United Arab Emirates followed in second place.

Considering cultural differences should be a considerable part of your decision-making process. Countries with cultural norms that contrast what you’re used to at home may be too far out of your comfort zone, and the culture shock may be severe. Are you willing to dress in a different manner or experience treatment based on your gender or race? How openly will you be able to express your sexuality and gender identity while studying abroad? These questions are especially important to ask when considering programs in socially and religiously conservative nations.

What are the challenges?

Adapting to a new culture can be a life-changing experience, one that can throw many challenges your way. Homesickness can happen. You may feel so bewildered by your surroundings that you consider returning home early. It’s not uncommon for students to become sick, experience injuries, or struggle with mental illness.

Staying healthy in an unfamiliar environment can also be a challenge. While abroad, try your best to maintain the healthy habits you practiced at home. Walking and running count as exercise and a great way to explore your new surroundings. Cooking your meals is a way to get a taste of familiarity—and save money, too.

While you’ll make new friends abroad, don’t neglect your relationships back home. Share your experiences with your loved ones regularly and stay updated on what’s happening in their lives. You may find that the newfound confidence and knowledge you’ll gain from international travel adds a new dimension to your relationships.

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