The anti-perks of studying abroad

Mitch, second year, studying English Literature at Freie Universitaet Berlin

As promised, my last blog was on the fun, positive side of Berlin and studying abroad (or a taste of it anyway). This blog is something a bit different – mainly because my study abroad experience certainly hasn’t been all rainbows and sunshine all the way through. These occasional periods of negativity, which eventually lead to greater insight into myself and therefore a positive outcome, are anti-perks.

For some reason, at the beginning, I really, honestly expected it to be non-stop positivity and making new friends and travel and yada-yada-yada, which is mostly has been. It’s been one of the most challenging and interesting portions of study I’ve ever done, I’ve made great friends from more countries than I can count, I’ve fully participated in a new academic environment and I’ve really improved my German. Basically, I’m immensely grateful for this opportunity because, in a way I neither predicted nor imagined, it’s been amazing.

Yet, this isn’t the whole story. Unfortunately, unpleasant things happen which are sometimes out of a person’s control, and which can be particularly challenging during a period of time when you’re out of the country where it’s taking place, or are in a different place than you might otherwise feel you need to be in order to make it better. Low mood and culture shock, or a close family member being in hospital are definitely a few of these things, and I can honestly say that I did not expect them to happen when they did (December last year/end of January this year). These things seem like negative events when they’re happening but, given time, they start to look a lot more like anti-perks, because I sort of gained something important from them happening in the end? Strange, but true.

They were important because they kind of shook up my experience of being abroad; I’d fully expected to encounter culture shock, had read about it, and had prepared myself with details of FU Berlin’s counselling services ahead of time, so that I didn’t have to struggle on my own. But when my moods started to change and I noticed that I wanted to withdraw more often, things went south pretty quickly and all I wanted to do was cry all the time! I honestly hadn’t expected the impact on my wellbeing that culture shock brings with it: the feeling of exposure with a hint of alienation/isolation is something I neither anticipated nor enjoyed, that much I can say for sure.

Fortunately, things have certainly changed for the better now and, armed with new self-knowledge (namely: how much I love spending time with good friends, and learning new things, when I feel up to it) I feel like I have learned so much about how to handle moving to a new country, and coming to terms with the realisation that I actually have to stay there (!). I’ve realised just how important, and central, my wellbeing and the wellbeing of my loved ones is to my life, which is a pretty significant additional thing to take away from my undergrad degree, I think?

On the flip side, I don’t think there’s a lot that can prepare you for the shock of a loved one going into hospital, and this has – in joint first place with low mood/culture shock – been the downside of this year for me. My grandad has only recently left hospital in Bristol, being in recovery (hopefully for the final time) after about five months of being there, and it was pretty scary and intense for a while. I guess I’m writing this because part of the reason I agreed to write this blog was to give an interesting, but as far as possible, balanced, insight into studying abroad. Every change has its pros and cons, and studying abroad is clearly no exception. I know that someone going into hospital in a person’s family is, you would imagine, an exception (and I hope it is for whoever reads this!), but if I could give one piece of advice, having had this experience, it would be to do what’s best for yourself and, when you can, your loved ones, if there is some kind of an issue with your study abroad experience.

For example, if you need to go home for a weekend to see an ill relative, take the weekend away! If you feel your mood go down significantly, use your uni’s counselling services! If you have a particularly rough week for whatever reason, lean on your friends and loved ones when you can! Not to seem like a self-help book (and this advice is as much for myself as it is for you guys), but your wellbeing literally is the most important thing you have, whether physical, mental or emotional.

Again on the flipside, the support that I’ve experienced in relation to these issues has been fantastic. My Academic Advisor in Manchester has been incredibly supportive, the FU’s counselling services are excellent and have really shown me a new side of myself and how I handle difficult times, and my friends and loved ones, as always, have been brill. So, far from being the be-and-end-all of studying abroad, these sorts of emotional fluctuations add a sense of depth and new self-knowledge to an experience that was already a very interesting and challenging one. I kind of like these funny anti-perks.

Next time, something on academic differences I think!

Bis später!

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