Surviving the Study Abroad Slump

There comes a time in the five-or-so-month lifespan of a semester abroad at which everything seems to be falling apart. Life in your country seems just so overwhelmingly frustrating, and even menial tasks seem difficult. Going to the store? A nightmare. Ordering a coffee? A disaster. Going to classes? Endless suffering.

Hello, from that place.

I will briefly explain the expected emotional cycle of an international student. Initially, upon arriving in the host country, you are at the ultimate peak of happiness. You are discovering a brand new culture and city and language and you are overjoyed to be out of the Claremont bubble. Life couldn’t be better. But slowly, as classes start, things get a bit greyer, a bit more frustrating. The frustrations build up, as does the homework, and eventually, come halfway through the semester, you find yourself riding the metro, trying not to cry, thinking: “I have made a horrible mistake.” You have arrived at the slump.

However, slowly you realize that your time in this amazing (albeit sometimes frustrating) place is limited and that you need to make the most of it while you can. So you start to make compromises, strategies to cope, and you start to accept cultural differences.

I haven’t gotten that far. I’m still in the crappy part, yet I think that a lot of pre-slump study abroad students underestimate how truly miserable this part of it actually can be. No matter how many times your program warned you that this was coming, you still can’t know exactly when it’s going to come or how hard it’s going to hit you.

For me, the slump started when I arrived back in Paris after my week-long trip to the U.K. On the train ride home, I was so excited to be back in Paris, my city. Upon arriving in my room, however, I almost immediately felt miserable. Paris didn’t feel at all like my city. My room didn’t even feel like my room. It all felt strange.

As I tried to go to classes and do homework, the sensation of hopelessness worsened. Everything felt so much harder when it was in French, and I had no idea how I was going to pass my upcoming midterms when I couldn’t even understand my lectures.

Even wandering through Paris had lost its spark. You really don’t appreciate all of the resources so readily available at the Claremont Colleges until you have to find them yourself. For example, it is not hard to find printers, water fountains, medical care, and places to sit outside without being bothered by creeps who shout at you.

I hadn’t slept, I hadn’t done an ounce of homework, I was constantly on the verge of tears, and I’d started stress-eating Chipotle and McFlurries. In short, I felt awful.

However, the worst feeling that came with the slump was the feeling of wrongness and isolation. This wasn’t what my study abroad experience was meant to be like! I was wasting it by spending hours watching YouTube videos, and I was doing the wrong thing by engaging with others in English so much. I thought that no one else felt that way, so I was wrong for being the only person who seemed so sad and miserable when everyone else was having the time of their life.

Then I realized that I wasn’t the only person who was sad and miserable. As I started to talk to other people who had studied abroad, or other people on my program, I discovered that everyone was sad. I wasn’t wrong, I wasn’t abnormal, and I wasn’t falling apart. I was, actually, right on schedule.

That doesn’t mean that it made the slump disappear completely, but it lifted all of the negative moral judgments I had placed on it, making it all much more bearable. I still have quite a bit of work to do. I need to find strategies to cope with cultural differences and re-discover some of the joy that I felt at the beginning of the semester, but at least I’m not doing it alone.

For people who are planning on studying abroad, or people who are currently abroad, when that feeling of hating everything about your host country comes knocking and you feel like human garbage, all alone on Sad Sack Island, worry not. You’re not alone! You’ve got plenty of friends on Sad Sack Island, and all you need to do is talk to them. Well, actually, that’s not all you need to do, but that’s the first step.

The second step is knowing yourself. If you’re the kind of person who needs to wallow a bit, do it! If you’re the kind of person who needs to cry for an hour, do it! If you’re the kind of person who needs to talk this out with someone—a parent, a friend, or a counselor—go for it! Because even though everyone is experiencing the slump, not everyone is going to experience it to the same degree or in the same way. Just be patient with yourself, with others, and try to remain grateful to be having such a unique experience.

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