Prepare to be flexible. It’s hard to know what things will be like until you arrive, and you may find that some things are very unexpected. Going abroad is about being flexible and willing to adapt – to a new culture, a new climate, perhaps having to alter your programme of study from what was originally planned. If you’re mentally prepared for this then it will be much easier to deal with. You can make it work!
Involve yourself and meet people. It’s just like being the new person all over again – you don’t know anyone and might not have much of a clue what’s going on. Friends are what make the experience and they provide your immediate support network. A great way to find friends fast is to live in student accommodation, although this can be more expensive. Take advantage of any schemes offered to exchange students, join societies, talk to people on your courses. Usually there are Facebook groups for incoming exchange students – join these and you can arrange to meet up with people upon your arrival. If you’re struggling to make friends, don’t beat yourself up – it can take time.
Explore your new home as much as possible and take full advantage of being in a new country with new experiences. Say yes to opportunities even they’re a bit daunting. This is a great opportunity to develop your independence and push your boundaries. You’re more likely to regret what you don’t do. If funds allow, plan out a travel itinerary for yourself to get the most out of your experience.
Find out as much as you can and sort practicalities before you go. Work out things like how you’ll set up a bank account, get a sim card, health insurance, how you’ll travel from the airport etc – do this before you arrive. Then you’ll minimise the practical stresses so you can focus on the fun stuff. Also try to learn about cultural differences you may encounter so that you at least have an idea of what to expect. Start learning the language of the country if it’s different from your own. See if your host university can put you in touch with a student to speak to; many places have buddy systems already set up. A good thing to ask them is what the studying set-up and overall atmosphere is like, e.g. formal vs casual interactions with teaching staff.
Stay in contact with your friends and family back home – Zoom! Often, feelings of homesickness are worse at night, so a time difference can actually be advantageous.
Maintain contact with your home university. Hopefully you have an adviser who will check in with you. If not, make sure you’re doing the necessary admin for your time abroad and do things like getting enrolled in modules at your home university for the following year.
Look after your body to look after your mind – sleep well, eat well and do some physical activity. The more you can do these things, the better you’ll feel overall.
Don’t be afraid to seek support if things don’t go as planned. It’s ok if you’re not having the time of your life – don’t feel pressured to seem like you are (beyond Facebook groups, social media is generally unhelpful). Going abroad is a huge change of environment so you may develop mental health issues you haven’t experienced before. It’s normal not to be happy and excited all the time, and to feel anxious or depressed sometimes. You should also be aware of the ‘W curve’, which describes how your happiness is likely to fluctuate when studying abroad. Familiarise yourself with the support services available at the university and make full use of them. Chances are it offers free counselling sessions. However, if you’re really struggling then do seek professional help.
Don’t be afraid to prioritise your own wellbeing. This goes wherever you are. It’s ok to choose to get a good night’s sleep instead of staying up late working, for example. Something specific you may encounter while abroad is ‘fear of missing out’ – while it’s true that you should get stuck in, don’t feel pressurised to opt out of things sometimes in favour of self-care.
Don’t forget to study! The contribution of your marks while abroad to your final degree mark will largely depend on your home university’s policy, but chances are you’ll still need to at least pass the year. You will probably find that your host university offers unique courses and areas of expertise that you can’t access at home, so take advantage of this.