“Heading Out”: The Study Abroad experience as a pathway for Emerging Adulthood. Valuing the ‘winding road’.

June 10, 2015 4:58 PM | Deleted user

by Janice Abarbanel PhD

 This entry continues the story of Stephanie’s experiences during her term abroad in Berlin.  You may recall that she had anticipated that she was well-prepared and that her transitions would be smooth.  What surprised her, even in her first days in Berlin, was how tired and overwhelmed she felt.  She was, from the outset, concerned that thoughts of self-doubt about her choice to leave the comforts of home appeared within her first week abroad.

With just a few weeks left before she prepared to return to the US, she reflected on ways the semester abroad impacted her sense of herself, her identity, plans for her future, and her relationships at home and abroad. 

 Given the normal challenges of Emerging Adulthood to balance the positive energy of heading out with the ongoing vulnerability of uncertainties stirred by the explorations themselves (especially in work and relationships), Stephanie’s winding path has been a common one.  Although she sometimes felt distressed, confused, or lonely, she found several friends on the program with whom she traveled and shared meals.  Over time, Stephanie noticed that moments of feeling excited and curious grew longer, and periods of worry seemed less often

Through her German teacher, she met a few German peers, and, though frustrating at times, she began to make her way around Berlin practicing her new language.  As the term closed, she shared that the staff had become a huge resource for her.  She felt challenged, supported, and understood - both in her excitement, growing competencies, and shifting moods. The staff had often discussed how  – often because her shifting moods and slowly developing competencies were understood and discussed, normalizing for all that cultural transitions are challenging for all, and that there are many paths through this experience.

 Studying abroad is an emotional time.  Some students are surprised about how intense they may feel, something they hadn’t felt in the past.  Is it homesickness, confusion, depression, exhaustion?   Sometimes it’s a mixture and a student might feel at ease, engaged, and just occasionally worried or off balance.  Some students have no difficulties with adjustment at all – the main thing to know is that everyone is different.

 Here are some of Stephanie’s end- of- term reflections:

  • 1)   “I’ve gotten the hang of my Berlin routine with classes, professors, friends, but now I’m concerned about how I will settle back into my home and home campus in the US.” 
  • 2)   “I know that the ‘whole social media thing’ was a mixed blessing.  I now see that it would have helped to agree on a “media plan” with my friends and family ahead of time since I felt both interested and obligated to keep in touch almost every day.  Once I noticed how exhausted I felt, and once the onsite staff suggested revisiting ways to increase positive energy, it was hard to tell everyone that I needed to connect less often.”
  • 3)   “I was surprised to discover how much I liked art history and made a decision to change my major.  This shift really was energizing for me, though difficult for my relationship with my parents since they are worried about what future job I might be able to have.”
  • 4)   “I now see that ‘adjusting’ is a process, not an event, so I’d encourage others to give themselves time to be open to the opportunities that come up after arrival.  I really set myself up for some big disappointments by thinking I had everything figured out.”
  • 5)   “I’m not sure what I’ll tell everyone at home when they ask, ‘How was Berlin?’ – it’s an experience that challenged everything about myself, one that felt hard sometimes, but one I know I will build on.  It’s going to take going home to figure out what really happened here.”