“Heading Out”: The Study Abroad experience as a pathway for Emerging Adulthood - Arrival and Orientation at a Study Abroad Site

April 20, 2015 2:20 AM | Deleted user

As educators and administrators working with students before, during, and after a study abroad experience, we observe that their cultural, academic, and emotional transitions are part of the larger formative process of re-centering and identity exploration that characterizes emerging adulthood. Welcoming new students at a study abroad site, we thus enter in a conversation with them about their individual academic and emotional journeys – their hopes, expectations, and needs. Our students may need varying degrees of support in order to thrive on the freedom and lack of structure typical of emerging adulthood, to manage new, complex cognitive challenges, and to develop skill sets that help them counter incidents of high adversity. Most students will experience very normal mood shifts associated with cultural and emotional adjustment, struggle with maintaining relationships at home while exploring new ones abroad, and seek assistance with managing their energy (rather than their time). Some emerging adults may find themselves struggling emotionally for the first time in their lives when studying abroad.

For Stephanie, the organized and optimistic young student you met in our January 7 blog post, this moment came when she landed in Berlin. She arrived after an over-night flight from New York, pushing two heavy suitcases through the arrivals hall while glancing at the arrival cheat sheet she had printed out and re-read on the plane several times. After some initial confusion, she found the Berlin staff greeting the new Berliners by the meeting point, boarded a shuttle bus together with other students, and caught her first glimpses of the city that she had imagined would become her new home. Berlin - site of her very own adventure, layers of history, center of the art scene, and place of new linguistic challenges: learning German. The new home looked grey, windy, and almost uninhabitable. The girl next to her recounted the many countries she had traveled to prior to coming to Berlin. The bus driver gestured at another driver, shook his head, and yelled something in German. Stephanie felt intimidated and exhausted. She tried to fight off the feelings of self-doubt.

At the beginning of her first orientation session, a neighborhood walk with a Language Tutor and a Resident Assistant, she was greeted in German (“Herzlich Willkommen!”) and asked to say a little bit more about why she had chosen to come to Berlin. Her head was spinning. Why did she come to Berlin, Stephanie wondered. It had seemed so clear to her back in the U.S.

The interface between the developmental stressors of emerging adulthood and the challenges of studying abroad can contribute to students needing extra support across all parts of the program. Very often, the initial orientation sessions set the tone for the semester to come. The emphasis is on helping our students feel comfortable asking for support and on providing the space and time for them to reflect on their individual study abroad experience from the very beginning. Emerging adults can profit from conversations with staff and faculty that aspire to be more than mere information-transfer events and address strategies and skill sets for better energy management, the interplay of self and shared care, the ways cultural transitions can affect emotions and ways that emotions can affect cultural transitions. Below, we share some ideas about how to approach these aspects of study abroad in an orientation session. Note the positive and normalizing voice which, from the beginning, encourages students to take steps away from a limited mindset of perfection or fear of failure towards a broader skill set for expecting mood shifts and reaching out to staff and faculty for support and guidance.

       “It’s never too early to ask for help” Students are encouraged to access staff as resources and to “share support” when friends and fellow students need help while studying abroad. They learn about the different ways students have used the Wellness office in previous semesters. This de-stigmatizes psychological support and establishes a more holistic and positive understanding of "Wellness" in the context of study away.

       “Arriving is not day one” – We recognize the different degrees to which our students have acquainted themselves with the abroad site and their host country prior to arrival: Whereas some students started preparing for their personal and academic experience in Berlin a year prior, some students applied because they were not accepted by another program or decided spontaneously and/or for very personal reasons. We speak about the possibility that culture shifts can be accompanied by mood shifts, and share how normal it is to feel confused, perhaps disappointed, and at the same time curious and very excited. Students often find it engaging to discuss how finding their place in an increasingly globalized world influences their notion of home, of their relationships, and the ways in which mobility creates opportunities to develop a new cosmopolitan worldview.

       It’s not about time; it’s about energy.” – We describe how one uses and restores energy as a key to making oneself at home in a place where everything is new. We encourage students to build a skill box with their personal ways to disengage from high-energy use and exhaustion, and to share their strategies with other students. It is emphasized that everyone approaches these challenges differently.

       “Developing a cosmopolitan outlook” In one exercise at orientation, students write down on cards their full name, place of birth, and citizenship(s) according to their passport(s). They are also invited to imagine and describe in a few sentences their lives 10 years from now. Thinking about the places their talents, research interests, and relationships may take them facilitates an understanding of how international mobility could contribute to a new cosmopolitan worldview and a broader sense of belonging, going far beyond their identification with their passport country.

        “Manage expectations!” In another orientation exercise, students share their expectations for the upcoming semester. They list things they are excited about on green cards, note points they have ambivalent feelings about on yellow cards, and mention what they are worried about on red cards. When these cards are discussed afterwards, students usually find that their classmates share similar worries and hopes. The entire list can be posted a few days later in the student lounge or another common area.

       “Planes fly faster than emotions settle in!” – Our new students have just left their friends and family and within hours arrive at their chosen study abroad location. This accelerated transition experience can feel unreal and overwhelming. Reflecting on the immediacy of plane travel and its sharp contrast to the process of adjustment and settling into a new home, students will hopefully leave this orientation session with the understanding that adjustment takes curiosity, patience, and self-awareness. It is a first step towards developing skills for a smooth transition, engaging staff support.  Settling into positive routines that can support students’ energy for academic pursuits are key. Staff should emphasize the importance of attending to self-care around food, sleep, exercise, and healthy friendships, and remind students to stay mindful of the impact that social media can have on their capacity to stay present in their study abroad experiences.

Please contribute your experiences with various kinds of models and approaches to supporting student pre-departure and on-site arrival. What has worked for you? Post your comments below or e-mail us at j.e.abarbanel@gmail.com and linn.friedrichs@nyu.edu.