I am participating in the IFSA Global and Public Health program at Manipal Academy of Higher Education in India. Time has passed so fast that it is hard to believe that already half of the semester has gone by! As I look back, I recall every single moment with friends, my cultural encounters, and my travels along the way. I have enjoyed every moment and every day I that I have been here and have been grateful for the opportunity to go overseas. Therefore, I wanted to take this opportunity to share some advice that I have learned being an international student and studying abroad in a culture very different from my own with future students.
How studying abroad shapes your perspective:
Since the program started, I have seen many of my friends dealing with homesickness. For example, sometimes having a hard time adjusting your diet to new foods and flavors can make you feel homesick. I can remember before I went abroad, my adviser back in the US showed me a graph of different cultural adjustment stages you could expect to go through while being abroad. At first, the starting point is high because you probably feel excited to go abroad and you are looking for new experiences, cultures, and friends, etc. Then, the curve gradually drops deep down at the point after your arrival, indicating feeling maybe stressed, anxious, and a little homesick with settling yourself to your new environment. Then after that, depending on how well your adjustment to the new place is going, the curve can reach higher again as you feel happy and comfortable with the new culture and environment, or – in worse scenarios – it would just even out if you’re having problems adjusting to your host culture and don’t feel a sense of belonging within it.
As an international student studying abroad for the second time now, I feel like I have adjusted more quickly to my host culture this time. My overall experience has been good so far because in comparison to adjusting to the U.S. culture, food, weather, and classes that was quite stressful, this time I was more adept at embracing my new environment. If you are also studying abroad for a second time around, I bet you will also find yourself adjusting easier to your new host country. So far, there is just one thing that has been hard to adjust to; in India, people are more likely to ask about my nationality than in the U.S. I do not like to answer because I do not want people treat me differently or any else – good or bad – owing to where I come from. If I travel around India, I just say I am from Manipal, the place where I study.
While you’ll surely make friends from within your study abroad program, making friends with local people is – while trickier – necessary for transitioning to the new place and feeling a sense of belonging and acceptance in the culture. I was lucky to get along with locals on campus; they were welcoming and willing to show me around, and in particular, they suggested a lot of beautiful nearby locations to visit. Getting to know people a little bit more closely, you begin to realize that they face similar issues as you in regards to family, study, and relationships. Thus, it would be a good time to exchange your thoughts and learn how people face these common human situations across cultural borders.
Moreover, I think going abroad is a chance for you to not only get out of your comfort zone, but also expand it. Immersing yourself into new cultures helps you broaden your worldview. When you leave your country, there are numerous things you’ll encounter that could make you feel uncomfortable. For instance, in another country, you may not be able to drink the tap water, or you may not be able to stay in an air-conditioned room. So, before going abroad, I managed my expectations and I prepared myself not to expect abroad the same situation as I’d have at home. Instead, I would take things as people there usually do. They still enjoy life and go about their own business without the necessities I used to have at home. I see it as an opportunity to put myself in their shoes and see life differently.
When different country languages become an issue:
Language is a challenge for international students while being abroad if their mother tongue is not English. Arriving in India, I have had a hard time adjusting my accent and speaking style to get the message across to Indian people. It is frustrating at first when you may be speaking grammatically correct, but they could not understand your message because of the different accent. A piece of advice that I had for myself was speaking slower and speaking in a more constant tone. Even more, at first, I could not clearly comprehend the Indian accent. It was a little rough for me right after arrival at the airport; I almost could not follow my resident director’s speech. As time passed, I stayed closer when he talked and identified the voice pattern. In less than two weeks, I got more used to the accent and would be able to understand his manner of speaking.
Having time for yourself:
It would be an advantage to explore beforehand your options besides your offered courses that could be available to you on your program so that you can budget your time well while abroad. You may not have as dense as schedule that you have in your home university, so it is an opportunity to manage your time but not to waste it. This would be a great opportunity to consider a cultural co-curricular activity if available, or any volunteering opportunities to get more involved in your local host community. Since back at home I know I’ll be very busy with applying for jobs or graduate schools, I’m learning to enjoy my free time on my study abroad program immersing myself more in the culture, traveling, and even just taking the time to enjoy a good audiobook! I think managing time for yourself – especially during study abroad – is an important skill set for self-development. Imagine when you will no longer have any more schooling, how you would deal with your time? Some would jump right into jobs, while perhaps others would have plans to travel. It is important to make the most significant experience out of your time abroad, so when you look back, you have no regrets and are satisfied with the choices you have made.
Nhan D. Nguyen is a Biochemistry major at Wabash College and studied abroad with IFSA on the Global and Public Health in Manipal program in the fall of 2018. He served as an International Correspondent through the First Generation Scholarship program.