August 1st 2022. It’s exactly a year to the day since I moved to Norway, or the quarantine hotel in Bergen, at least. And what an incredible 10 months it was. I threw myself into Norwegian life, making the most of the ample opportunities on offer. You can read about some of these incredible experiences in my previous blog posts!
However, if I could offer one piece of advice to myself one year ago today, and to anyone about to embark on a year abroad themselves, it would be that it’s ok to go home during your year abroad… Indeed, throughout the year, I felt that there was an immense pressure from fellow students to never go home for a weekend, holiday or week during year abroad, and that if you do, you are ‘failing’ Erasmus. For example, myself and others were constantly criticised for choosing to go home for Christmas in mid December, and not staying in Bergen until the days before Christmas Eve. As if it is some sort of competition for who can stay the maximum amount of days in Norway! I was also worried about missing out on things happening in Norway or that it would have an impact on building friendships with fellow students.
Of course, it is only a 90 minute flight between Bergen and Manchester, and I was fortunate to have financial aid specifically for travel purposes from the Turing Scheme. Nonetheless, during Semester 1, I gave in to this pressure and FOMO, and did not go home to visit friends or family once, which in the end I bitterly regretted because I missed some important family events and 21st birthdays. So, in Semester 2, I took a last minute, cheap flight home for Easter, which allowed me to go back to Norway a week later, refreshed and rejuvenated for my final months there. I also made plans to meet friends from home in a neighbouring Scandinavian country, so that I too could have a holiday and change of scenery (rather than them coming to Bergen).
So, all in all, don’t give in to the pressure to never go home during your time abroad! If your timetable and finances permit it, then I think it’s a great way to boost your mental health and wellbeing. Seeing friends and family, and the change of scenery, might even make you appreciate your year abroad more in the long term.
By this point you surely realize how incredibly fun it can be to study abroad. But let’s be real, it might not always be. All the same, know that if you ever find yourself in a less welcoming, stressful, or (God forbid) emergency medical situation, there are places you can go and seek help from. Here are some insights for what to do if you find yourself in need in Toulouse.
Physical and mental health support and advice
The best place to look for support and advice related to anything to do with health is the University Medical Centre. All you need to do is call the office number, and you can be professionally assessed by a nurse directly on the phone. She usually asks you about the issue and offers advice right away, but if you deem it necessary, she can also set up an appointment with a specialist depending on your needs. This is usually quick, even the same day. The centre provides generalist medical services, but also has nutritionist, gynecology, or mental health specialists. You might think it quite daunting to pick up the phone or even talk to someone in a foreign situation, but there is no need to worry, even when it comes to the language barrier. If you don’t speak French, it’s no big deal – most specialists also speak English and/or Spanish.
For most purposes, the University Medical Centre should be your go-to, however there might also be times when you find yourself in a situation requiring urgent medical care and cannot wait for an appointment, or when the issue cannot be resolved over the phone. In that case, I recommend going straight to the nearest walk-in emergency clinic (Urgences in French). These can be isolated clinics or part of larger hospitals. For such a visit, you will need to bring your identity card (usually a passport) and medical insurance card. In these situations it’s much easier if you can speak French so that the doctor can ask questions and examine you without any barriers, however, most places in big cities like Toulouse will also have professionals who speak English.
If you find that you cannot get to an emergency clinic on your own, here are the necessary emergency numbers you can call (not just medical):
112 (European number for all emergencies)
15 (Medical emergencies)
18 (Fire brigade)
114 (Number for people with impaired hearing)
A note on insurance
In terms of the documents you will need in these places, thankfully, the University Medical Centre doesn’t require anything besides your student card. For walk-in emergency clinics or hospitals, you will need an identification card of some sort, whether it is a country-issued ID card (EU) or a passport. In addition, you will need an insurance card. Note that although UoM insurance covers you for some incidents, it might not cover you for everything in France. Likewise with an EU-issued insurance card from another country. To avoid paying for the clinics services, I suggest you get a carte vitale (French medical card) as soon as you arrive in France. This can be obtained on request at the local mairie if you already have an EU insurance card. Alternatively you will need to apply for it ahead of time, the same way you would for visa and social security in France, and pick it up when you arrive.
Homesickness is a natural and common thing most people will experience when moving to a new country to study or work. The best way I found to tackle a feeling of dislocation and feel more grounded was rooted in bringing slices of home with me on my adventure. Here are some top tips I found helped:
Bringing home comforts with you – some of my flatmates had a blanket they always slept with, their favourite perfume or their favourite snacks from home. I had my childhood teddy bear. These simple items make you feel more comfortable in a space in which you are not familiar with.
Decorate your room – there are so many ways you can decorate your rooms, I had pictures of my friends and family, politics posters and a tapestry. You can also buy things within your time abroad. My first few weeks in Amsterdam gave me plenty of opportunities to buy decorative items in vintage flea markets (which were really cheap too!)
Download/ buy a VPN system onto your laptop – I paid for NordVPN which allowed me to watch UK netflix and Amazon Prime shows. This allowed me to stay more connected to the things I was watching at home whilst also enjoying streaming shows playing in the Netherlands.
An important ‘top tip’ to tackle any feeling of displacement is to keep the mind distracted – I spent the first few weeks of living in Amsterdam learning origami and visiting museums. I also strongly suggest making plans of things to do and lists of places to visit – making lists gives structure to a situation that may seem chaotic to your body and mind.
Go to welcome events/ make friends with flatmates, I would urge you to make friends with people from different cultures and countries around the world. Not only does it give you companions you can visit in the future, but it brings up interesting conversations of cultural comparisons. Talking about home with a person with a completely different perspective can help to ease feelings of dislocation as it helps to see the world in different ways.
Take lots of photos and pick up mementos of your activities to keep a track of your international experience. I keep a scrapbook of the places I have been to. Within this book I write down my thoughts and feelings about the year as well as sticking in pictures and postcards of places I’ve visited.
Feelings of dislocation come and go when you’re suddenly immersed in a different culture with new people. But feelings of disarray and disturbance are not all bad. Taking time to relax and reflect on your exciting travels grounds you to your surroundings in encapsulating ways.
You’re in a new place with exciting opportunities to try new things, embrace it!
Ever since I can remember, my Christmas Day has involved being at my own house or that of a close relative, with lots of my family squeezed around a table, or a couple of different shape and height tables, sat on emergency chairs, stools or even the garden bench, with food filling every possible space and bits of cracker debris in your gravy, dogs barking, everyone talking at once and reading out the joke already heard twice so far, and it being my favourite day of the year. So, it may have sounded like a very privileged problem to have, to feel deflated that I would be spending Christmas day on holiday, in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, most likely on a beach, and with 3 amazing friends, but it was how I felt nonetheless.
The preparations for our unconventional Christmas in Cancun had begun a few days before, when on a trip to a nearby town, Valladolid, we had all split up for an hour to scour the markets and shops for our not so secret Santa gifts. The biggest adventure of the evening, however, was having our car locked into the cathedral’s car park. Luckily, we were rescued by an on-site shopkeeper who managed to find a key – a Christmas miracle?
We were then tasked with the compromising of everyone’s ideas for how the festivities were going to be spent. As I was spending this holiday with French friends, this meant we were to be having a traditional Christmas eve dinner cooked by them, and a Christmas day meal, cooked by me. We decided to round it all off with a brunch in between the two, which meant crepes along with, my new found favourite French food, which roughly translates to ‘lost bread’. All of these last minute plans meant we would have to make a trip to the worst place imaginable on Christmas Eve… Walmart. Luckily, we’d split the list and paired off to make the experience more bearable, and had successfully navigated the crowds to find everything we needed apart from the ‘essential’ chocolate spread that was nowhere to be seen. We eventually tracked down the item under lock and key in customer services, it appears that mexico takes its Nutella VERY seriously. With that, the claustrophobia inducing nightmare of a food shop was successfully completed – Christmas miracle number 2, perhaps.
In all of the festivities, my lowest point was Christmas day morning. Due to the time difference, with my family all so busily involved in the Christmas activities back home that we hadn’t been able to facetime. This was made harder by the fact that all my friends, who’s families had their main celebration the night before, were all speaking to their own families at that time, so I was feeling a bit out of the loop – quite inconsiderate of my family really, to be enjoying themselves without me… However after calls from friends back home, the family facetime, and trip to an absolutely packed beach, I was coming round to the idea that I might actually be having a good time. Following this by my cooking almost entirely, of a Christmas dinner that I was really complimented on, including by our airbnb host and her partner, a chef, made my day.
Side note – our Airbnb host was one of the most eccentric people I’ve ever met. On arrival at the property she demonstrated, and had us practice, how to open the gate with two hands so as to not ‘strain the lock’. We then found there to be notes all around the property which reinforced the double sided page of house rules – why by the way was typed and laminated, with emboldening, capitalising and highlighting for emphasis – the most interesting of these notes being an actual metal fork taped to the wall by the sink to remind us not to use metal forks in the pans so as not to scratch them. Just as we were finishing our dinner, we received a message from her to kindly turn off the air conditioning, which had been on to cool the house down from all the cooking. At the point of explaining this, we made the snap decision to invite her over, as we had lots of food still hot that we couldn’t bear to throw away when we left the next morning, and also because, even though she was a character, we were unsure if she had company, and we felt that no one should be alone on Christmas. Her and her partner arrived at our door shortly after and we welcomed them in, after which to our horror she swept round the house, throwing all the windows wide open proclaiming ‘let the air in, it’s wonderful’ – inviting in all the mosquitos for dinner as well… However, after sharing some of our meal with them, we found them our hosts to be so endearing, and ended the night not only with gifts of handmade head massagers – which is still the weirdest gift I think I have every received from a near stranger, but more importantly, had got to know the person behind the notes and the rules, as a friend – Christmas miracle number 3.
Once our esteemed guests had left, we exchanged gifts and then gathered by the pool to dip our legs in the water and take in the ‘wonderful air’ of night that had fallen. At this moment, I realised what a nice Christmas it had been, and how, as I did have the rest of my life for beloved family Christmases, missing it just once, really wasn’t so bad after all.
Whether you are studying abroad at a different university or on placement/ interning in a different city or country, being away from your comfort zone and in a new environment will sometimes come with its own difficulties. The effect of moving away on mental health is often not spoken about before departure, and this can potentially end up completely overshadowing what should be a year of making new friends, improving language skills and learning a new way of life.
So it is important to recognise that these transitions can be challenging, and anticipating being away from home and familiar support networks can sometimes lead to worry, anxiety and stress. These emotions are to be expected, especially when you’re adapting to a new environment, culture, group of friends, education system, and sometimes even a new language in a short timeframe.
Here are a few tips to look after yourself whilst abroad and a list of some resources that are available to you if you live or study in Amsterdam more specifically.
Moving to a different country to study and live abroad is an incredible experience. From meeting new people, trying new foods, visiting new places, new experiences and discovering the local culture but sometimes it’s not always sunshine and rainbows and THAT’S OK!
A few weeks into my exchange I began to miss home as well as all my family/friends but do not worry it is completely natural and all part of the process of studying abroad. So here are some tips if you are ever feeling homesick on any point of your exchange.
Stay in regular contact with friends/family Staying in regular contact with your friends/family is the best way to diminish that feeling of being homesick whether it be a quick call or a long FaceTime. So far on exchange, I speak to my mum every day on the phone for a quick natter and it makes me feel better if I haven’t had a good day.
Talk to your exchange friends Talk to your exchange friends when you feel like this as they most likely feel or have felt the same way as you at some point on their exchange – it’s only natural!
Have things to look forward to! No doubt you’ll always have something to look forward with being on exchange! Having things to look forward to is key to tackling the feeling of being homesick. Plan trips away, I’ve already visited Russia, Estonia and Lapland. Organise social activities with your friends during your free time whether it be eating out together or even just a walk in the park.
Keep yourself busy Keeping yourself as busy as possible distracts your mind from being home sick. I keep myself busy here in Helsinki by keeping up to date with my university work here and work that needs to be completed back at Manchester University.
Unisport Unisport provides over 200 fitness classes and gives you access to gyms all across Helsinki – at an affordable price. Unisport has personally really helped me during my time here so far, I now enjoy going to the gym and regularly attend the classes they provide. Exercise both positively impacts both mind and health – so I believe it helps combat any feeling of homesickness.
So, I tend to overthink things. A lot. Before coming to Canada, I was worried about how study abroad fit into my university career. Would I be behind when I got to Canada? Would I be behind when I got back? What if I dropped marks? I have the whole of the rest of my life to travel, so maybe I should wait?
Let me take a moment to walk you through a few reasons why I shouldn’t have been too caught up in how study abroad would affect my academics, and why you might not need to worry too much either:
Unsurprisingly, like a good number of other students, I have anxiety and I normally have difficulty giving myself time off. The first advantage of study abroad is that it gives me an excuse (an excuse to myself that is) to take time out to explore. Changing my environment so drastically also gave me an opportunity to change my habits; there were fewer expectations and routines attached to my new space, so I have been able to construct healthier and more productive study habits, based on what I’ve learnt about my learning style in my first two years of university.
Surprisingly, the difference in structure has also been a big help. I was worried before coming to Canada about the heavier workloads and the more frequent assessments, but far from being a problem this has actually been very beneficial; going from 100% exams in Manchester to grades split between finals, midterms, assignments and quizzes has had an amazing effect on my anxiety. I’m much happier, and my grades reflect this. Over this first semester I’ve engaged more deeply with the lectures and understood more as a consequence. I’m still a little nervous that I will struggle when I get back, but I’m hoping I’m putting down a firm foundation to work from when I return for my final year.
Another reason not to worry too much is that grades aren’t everything. In the longer term, study abroad can improve resilience, independence, and the ability to work with diverse groups of people, as well as other skills that employers look for. It also lets you explore the diversity of cultures within your field; if you want to stay in academia, you can use this experience to explore what atmosphere you want to be in. In physics for example, Guelph and Manchester are worlds apart; I’ve gone from a class of 250 to classes of 12-20. I know everyone, and everyone knows me, including the lecturers. I’m much happier asking questions, and when there are four deadlines on the same day and it’s just not going to happen, it can be resolved with a simple conversation.
So far, this experience has had an amazing effect on my anxiety, which has in turn had a positive effect on my grades. Study abroad is an enriching opportunity, and I’m happy I was able to look past my academic worries. Every story is different, but I think there is always a lot you can learn from challenging yourself, even if it’s just that being away from home for so long isn’t your thing. If you have the grades & skills to succeed, and if it feel right, just go for it!
By George Davies – The University of Calgary, Canada
The topic of mental health is commonly discussed in the realm of studying overseas. So whilst I may not be contributing anything new to this topic, I wanted to share my experiences with anxiety during my year away. As well as the coping mechanisms I tried to deploy and useful links available during your time away.
By Nooa Karlo, (University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong)
There’s a common and stereotypical image of exchange students as these endlessly spirited and energetic creatures that will take every and any chance to find new experiences and opportunities. They’re people who are always smiling, going out, organising and participating in activities, partying, exploring and experiencing. Sometimes this also includes studying hard, sometimes not. In any case, it has been clear to me from the beginning that I did not fit well into this image. Continue reading “Doing everything vs. staying sane”→
There is an inescapable bubble that absorbs you when you study abroad. Everything is exciting, everything is new – new friends, new classes, new experiences. You quickly adapt to living at three times the speed of real time, where a week goes by in a day and a month is over before you’ve had time to process yesterday’s reading for class. But I’d implore any potential ‘go abroad’ student to just, if only briefly, think back to that very distant lecture in Manchester that was ominously titled ‘It Won’t Happen to Me’. I admit, it escaped my memory as soon as my suitcase fell off the baggage claim in RDU airport. However, it’s really important to know what your options are if you receive news from back home that temporarily bursts the study abroad bubble.
Last month, I received a text at 3am that reminded me that life at home is not left in a state of perfect paralysis as soon as you leave the country. The death of a loved one hits very hard, regardless of your geographical proximity to them. Being told that I could not statistically make the journey back for the funeral was very painful and frustrating and for the first time since arriving in the States, I felt quite deserted.
Trying to process this news whilst preparing for my first midterm exam that very same day was another challenge in itself. I chose to sit the exam, I had already prepared for it and didn’t want it looming ahead in an already hectic university schedule. But I also decided it might be worth contacting the Study Abroad Office back in Manchester. It did feel slightly awkward and somewhat useless (what could anyone do about the situation?) but it actually provided me with protection for my academic standing both at NC State and UOM. It seems an odd thing to consider during such a period of shock, however it helped to alleviate the stress of working and provided me with some mental space to grieve.
With this in mind, I cannot stress enough how crucial it is to consider your mental health, especially as a student. Thankfully my family and friends at home are all available for me to contact whenever I need to. I am also lucky to have superb friends over here in the States who I’m extremely grateful to for looking after me. Going abroad can be stressful, things can go wrong and sometimes we just can’t be where we want to be. But being out of my comfort zone has prepared me in many more ways than I imagined. Having global support has bridged the distance between here and home, and I am now aware of having a strong support network wherever I may be in the world.
This blog post is addressed to any student who ever finds themselves getting THAT phone call or text. To anyone who is caught in a national or local emergency, or who is struggling, for a short period or every single day, with mental or physical health. It is so important to have open communication between you and your academic institution. Any stress-inducing situation that hinders your academic capabilities is not just your burden to bear. There are mitigating circumstances, there is support and advice available to you, and you are absolutely not alone.