Reflections on a Semester Away: A Look into the Varied Experiences of Visiting Students
Beginning My Reflections
Boy, what a semester it has been. As is always the case with me, time felt so slow– too slow– in the beginning, but looking back at it from the end, it went by extremely quickly. My semester in Japan has been full of surprises (both good and occasionally not-so-good) and so with this post, I will begin reflecting on those with you. Admittedly, the biggest thing that caught me off guard after moving into my room was the amount of adjustment fatigue and homesickness I felt.
Now, I know that sounds pretty intimidating. To be fair, it was. This was the first time I would be this far (13-14 hour time difference) from my family for this long (just over five months) and it would be the first holidays (Christmas and New Years) I spent on my own. When applying to the Doshisha Program and leading up to the start date, I spent maybe a maximum of two minutes acknowledging these thoughts, and so after I was actually thrown into it, it hit me like a truck.
Everyone adjusts differently and everyone feels homesickness to various degrees. To some, studying abroad is a much-needed break– not all of us are able to say we find comfort at home. To others, it’s tough but exciting, so after a couple weeks of settling in, they’re good to go. To me, who finds much comfort in established routines, habits, and environments, moving into a place where all three of those were simply nonexistent, it took much more effort and patience. All in all, I think it took me over two months to fully adjust to life here and to grow comfortable with the homesickness that I felt.
I want you to understand, however, that I am not writing this to scare you away from studying abroad. As you will hopefully gather as you read on, it is more so to be honest about my experience and to show you that studying abroad is much more than what you see on social media, like constant delicious-looking food stories (…guilty…)– and that’s normal.
A lot of what I struggled with is that it seemed as if no other study abroad students were feeling how I felt. It seemed that everyone else was having so much fun without any negative thoughts or troubles at all which only added to my feeling of isolation. I knew I was wrong but sometimes, when you’re in the moment, it’s hard to see things from a strictly observational point of view. But, to help you understand that you are not alone if you ever find yourself feeling how I did, I decided to conduct a survey on how the other international students felt about this topic.
This survey was short and definitely does not speak for the entire population (the number of responses is small compared to the 500+ international students), but it’s insightful nonetheless. I’ll talk about some of the results below without going too in depth as to avoid making this post too long (though I wouldn’t disagree with you if you said it already was lol). All students gave their permission to share their answers– just anonymously.
On the survey for the study abroad/international students, ages ranged between 19 years old to 28 years old. Majority of the students were in their third or fourth years of college, though a fair amount were starting college abroad or completing a masters degree. Majors were spread across many areas of study that did not necessarily have anything specific to do with Japan– for example, one student is studying bio-pharmaceutical sciences in the Netherlands and plans to work there after graduation.
Over half of the respondents planned to be studying abroad in Japan for one year with the second most common length of time being 4-6 months. With these background information questions, I hope you can see that studying abroad genuinely is not limited to a certain age group or to your major. The most valuable part of studying abroad is the experience of changing your academic environment, meeting new people, growing more independent and mature, and well, experiencing.
The next set of questions I asked honed in more on students’ experiences moving to their study abroad location. All students indicated that they experienced homesickness. I asked about how long it took them to adjust and the results were, as expected, extremely varied. In fact, responses ranged almost evenly between one week and about three months. I then asked if there was anything in particular that they found difficult. One student said adjusting in itself wasn’t difficult, it just took time, while another student mentioned how all of the little differences (i.e. food, doctors, way of thinking, the post office, etc) stacked up and felt overwhelming and intimidating.
I then questioned what things they did to help them overcome their homesickness or struggles to adjust. Here are a couple of their responses:
“I felt pretty lonely at first when I came here and I know that for some people studying abroad equals vacation and that’s also what I first thought. But coming here I realized that not everyday needs to be good since I realized that it is more so a trip where you get to know yourself better!! With time, I learned tricks to occupy myself not to feel depressed or lonely :)”
“I video call my family almost every day, I stay in touch with friends from back home, I buy familiar foods sometimes, I go out on the weekends”
I ended my survey by asking if they have any advice for students who are considering a study abroad but are a bit worried about how it will affect them. Some of their words of advice are:
“I think that everything in life is a matter of taking our courage and trying to fight our fears. Of course with the ways we are capable of or with whom we feel more at ease with. Life is also painful, suffering, and sadness. So, the wisest thing is to become aware of that asap and say to ourselves: “it’s ok, I will go through a bad period, but then it will become better. I have all the power and the ability to overcome everything that scares me””
“I think that while that is a risk when studying abroad, you should also think about what experiences could be had. Also that in the grand scheme of things 6 months to a year of being away from home is not that long of a time. Also, really try and make friends, because that will be a big part of whether your experience is going to be good or not. I know I’ve made some great friends that have already helped me through bad times.”
“I understand it’s quite a big step to take and of course it can be scary, but surrounding yourself with other people and just having fun can make the place feel like a second home.”
“Everybody has a fear of making change. However, the people that grow the most are the ones who make an effort to put themselves in uncomfortable situations. Embrace the hesitation and use it to take your first step into self improvement. After 3 months here, I can already say I have done a lot that I wouldn’t have been able to do before making the jump. Honestly I am surprised I was able to take it at all, but I am so glad I did. It is a life changing decision that I hope you will put serious thought into.”
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help– if something is giving you trouble it’s probably troubling someone else too. You’re never really alone, whether it’s fellow exchange students or people on the internet with similar experiences and advice. Making mistakes is inevitable and that’s totally okay, you always get there in the end”
“Before coming to Japan, I thought that everyday would be perfect and that I could enjoy every single day but it isn’t the case! If I had to give one piece of advice I think it would be not to have too many expectations and think of it more as experience to improve your own self!! To enjoy every day without forcing yourself to do too many things at once!”
I hope that some of their advice and reassurances help you.
Why It Was Worth It
The reason I wanted to make my third post about this is because I feel that with school and other students advertising study abroad programs, the challenge of adjusting and homesickness tends not to be mentioned as to not “taint” the “attractiveness” of the study abroad experience. But, let’s be real. Studying abroad is definitely not just sunshine and happiness. Living on your own is hard, and depending on your program, having to be completely self-sufficient to kickstart your own social life in a new country, to navigate a new campus, or to complete logistical residence or financial procedures, can be a tough wake up call. However, the growth, friends, and memories from it can absolutely be beams of light and avenues to realizing what it is you need to do to meet your needs. It’s a sneak peak to life after finishing school when you’re sent off into the world without a set itinerary that spaces like college assign you.
This semester I learned invaluable life skills that would have been difficult to develop if I had stayed at Amherst. I’ve gained the confidence to navigate cities unknown to me and ask for help when needed, even if that means asking a stranger in a foreign language. I can now spend full days on my own without feeling lonely while instead appreciating my own company and the flexibility of solo travel. Entering a space that already has friend groups and social circles is no longer nearly as intimidating to me as it used to be. I’ve learned to be more aware of how my actions affect others, especially when we may consider the same thing differently due to our different experiences or cultures. Time management has become key to taking advantage of the academic opportunity to increase my proficiency in Japanese while also adventuring around the beautiful country.
A phrase I learned while in Japan goes, “一期一会” (ichigo ichie). It derives from the Japanese traditional tea ceremony and in short means “once-in-a-lifetime encounter”. It encourages us to treasure the unrepeatable nature of a moment– we are here, right now, in this space and time, with friends or strangers or just our own selves, experiencing something that cannot be experienced again. Each moment is an unique opportunity to appreciate, learn, and grow. When I reflect on all of my highs, lows, and in-betweens of my time in Japan through this lens, I am extremely grateful for all parts and parties involved– even the not-so-glamorous ones. I learned and grew and I appreciate that I’m able to reflect on and share it with all of you.