This topic isn’t as fun to discuss, but it’s super important. I don’t think anyone ever told me just how hard studying abroad would be. Not in an academic sense, though that is true enough in some regards too, but emotionally. Obviously it is different for each person, and some people are doing significantly better than others in coping with the stress, but it’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into.
People here in Spain, probably in other parts of Europe too, are not shy. The general population seems much more aggressive and in your personal space than in America. Which is fine, it’s just a cultural difference. But part of that is the staring. People will not look away if you make eye contact. It’s usually just part of their curiosity, especially if you are with a group of friends speaking English, but it can also be for things you can’t control as much, such as having blonde hair or dark skin. Their stares usually don’t mean anything but curiosity, but it can be uncomfortable to receive all the unwanted attention just for walking down the street. A friend of mine had to change her path to class because there was one older woman who stood out on her balcony and yelled things down to her any time she passed. We don’t know what she was saying, but it always started with “hey, blond girl!” and it made her uncomfortable enough to change her path.
Your personal bubble is about to get way smaller. This is another cultural difference, and it’s fairly well discussed. In America, we’re usually comfortable having a couple of feet in between us if we’re having a conversation. If it’s just you and another person, it’s about a foot and a half, two feet, if you’re talking with a group, it’s closer to 3-5 feet, if you’re sitting in a class it can be anywhere from 6-10+ feet. In some countries, that feels uncomfortably close, in others, it feels awkwardly far. Spain is one of the latter. Spaniards don’t worry too much about personal space, so walking up next to you on the sidewalk isn’t abnormal, subways and buses are nice and cozy, and conversations, even with teachers, can take place up to six inches in front of your face. Not always, and obviously it depends on the context, but it can be a bit unnerving if you’re not expecting it and your professor is suddenly lecturing you about 8 inches from your face.
This has been the hardest one to deal with, honestly. Like all of us, Spaniards have opinions on everything. Unlike all of us, they are not worried about sparing your feelings and will share their opinion, even if it doesn’t align with yours. There is also a lot of murky area for misunderstandings, which is a tricky spot even without a language barrier, but if you’re talking about your upcoming trip, and your host parents just stare at you and say “hmm,” it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on. It could be affirmation that they’re listening and hear you, or it could be an “I don’t agree with you but I’m not saying it” hmm. The best thing to do in this case is just assume it’s the first and try to not worry about it. It can be difficult, though. The other part of this is that they’re usually fairly vocal about their disapproval. I wasn’t expecting that. I mentioned something to my host father about difficulties my boyfriend and I were having with our tickets for a trip we were planning due to a cancellation of one of his flights last minute, and my host father kept asking why it was a big deal, and implying that my boyfriend and I wouldn’t last as a couple if we couldn’t handle small changes like this. Never mind the fact that we’re on opposite sides of the globe and cancellation of a flight is frustrating for anyone. Oh well. It can be strange to get peoples’ unwanted judgment, but most people in your group will be going through something similar, and you can all commiserate together. I’ve had teachers straight up tell us that they don’t like having Americans in their classes. What do you do with that information? You really can’t do anything with it, so you have to try to not let it bother you.
Depending on your program, you’ll have more or less control over your classes and where you take them, but taking classes in a foreign country is difficult, period. It’s really hard to not understand everything even on a basic level, and still find the motivation to attend class and focus and try. Many of us had to learn how to study when we got to college, if we hadn’t figured it out in high school, but this takes it to a new level. Again, it depends on your program, but most are going to be flexible with regards to class type, as long as you take a certain number of credits. For example, it’s going to be rare to have a program that says “you must take calc 2, chem, and spanish while abroad.” But the reason for this is that it’s significantly more difficult to handle topics in a foreign country, and a foreign language. Duh, right? But I’m serious, it’s harder than I ever expected. I’m learning a ton. But even in basic conversations, I have to think and flounder for the words, and it’s taxing. Be realistic with your skills and give yourself a break.
The biggest thing to remember is that if you’re studying abroad, you’re doing something that only a fraction of the population do, and if you’re doing it in another language, it’s an even smaller fraction. It’s challenging. But the other side of it is that there are communities that are there to support you if you reach out to them. There was a death of someone from my university in one of the programs in another city in Spain, and within two days I had received emails from the program, my directors personally, the study abroad office, the university, and concerned friends. Although I didn’t know him personally, it was a nice reminder that there are so many people who are invested in your mental health and safety. So, with that being said, it’s exhausting to be abroad. But you should do it anyway. Just be realistic about what you have to do with regards to your sanity. Call your mom. Find some ice cream and eat it. Eat it every day if you want to. Go for a run, if that’s your thing. Read a book. In English. Draw a picture. Go on a walk. Buy a new shirt. All of the above. You being in a foreign place is difficult on its own, and being in a foreign language where you’re constantly running into language barriers and judgment is taxing, and you need to do whatever you need to do to make sure you can get through it.
And you will. And it’ll be great.
For as many things that happen here that upset me, there are 5 that make me happy and grateful to be here. Stress sucks, but as long as you’re taking care of yourself, a little more stress for a few months will come back tenfold in reward.