May is Mental Health Awareness month, and at ISA, we know that mental health is a topic relevant to every individual. This is true whether or not you have a diagnosis or any pressing mental health concerns. Similar to physical health, staying mentally well is an ongoing practice and a highly individualized journey. While traveling, you may notice some shifts in your wellness that require unique interventions.
In this blog, we share stories and tips from alumni about how they prioritized mental health during their study abroad experience. They offer insights for how to optimize wellbeing, but, remember that these are ideas and offerings, not prescriptive recommendations. We hope they will aid your own journey of discovering what practices and mental health tools are most supportive to you. If possible, we invite you spend some time pre-departure to reflect. Consider personalized ways that you can maintain calmness and clarity so that you can be your most expressed and resourced self throughout your program.
Here’s what our alumni had to say about navigating their mental health abroad!
Before Departure: What sort of preparations did you do? What sort of things did you do to set yourself up for success while abroad?
“Before I left, I made sure to spend plenty of time with my family and really take the time to relax and do self-care….As someone who is going into the psychology field, I know how important self-care is…I ensured that I had a way to stay in contact with family and friends back home and I also packed things that would help me to relax or keep busy. I brought a book to read during quarantine, a journal to write about my daily experiences, saved Netflix shows to watch and exercise videos to keep active. I also made sure I had all the information I needed for my time abroad and that I had all the documents that were necessary to keep from worrying or getting anxious.” – Abby Wellings, South Korea Alum, 2021
“I worked with my therapist to talk about goals to have when I was traveling and how I could continue my therapy abroad. I have been able to meet online with them as often as I have needed. I did research to know about how Colombia could support me in my needs, looking for the popular views on mental health and on accepting of minority groups.” – Jonathan Lingard, Colombia Alum 2022
“Honestly I was in shambles before I actually left and did not really prepare myself. However, I do not think I knew how to prepare properly.” – Jurnee Starks, Spain Alum, 2021
“To prepare on going abroad, make sure to make a commitment to remain in contact with your loved ones. It is really easy to slip up as you may be having too much fun and start to forget contacting them, but it is helpful for you and them to stay connected for peace of mind. – Samantha Viacrusis, South Korea Alum, 2021
“I pushed myself to be more “extroverted”. I talked to people who studied abroad before and asked for tips and advice on how to navigate many different things.” – Anonymous, South Korea Alum, 2021
While you were Abroad: How did you adjust to your new environment? What helped you navigate your hurdles abroad? Did you find community within your friend group, friends or family from home, or both?
“The education and support from the on-site staff was also very helpful in getting adjusted, navigating the city, and knowing what to expect. I talked to my family on a daily basis…and I made sure to stay busy and get immersed in the culture through learning the language and adventuring every day when I wasn’t too busy with school. And, of course, tons of self-care, whether that be through an enjoyable activity in the dorms, taking a walk or doing some exercise, or just hanging out with the friends I made abroad. I also took some time each night to read a Bible passage and reflect on what I read or pray, and I definitely took advantage of Korea University’s library and rented a few books to read in my spare time…
Navigating my mental health was a little different since my support system was oceans away, but having the knowledge of how to take care of my mental health definitely helped me with living in an entirely different place than what I’m used to. I relied on communication with my family, and I also kept in consistent contact with the ISA on-site staff. Minhee and Euisoo are such great people and really care for their Seoul students, so having their support as well helped me to adjust and enjoy my time abroad, especially with it being my first time away from home. I also had an incredible group of friends, and we all took care of each other when we needed it.” – Abby Wellings, South Korea Alum, 2021
“I was able to connect quickly with some of the other international students which helped me to rely on people from my same culture when times were difficult as I tried to adjust to a new environment. At times I had many struggles with the language and trying to adjust to a new city life but I learned to depend on my host family to help. They were instrumental in helping me feel comfortable. I strived to meet new people and make the effort to grow friendships with them. I found a space early on where I could separate myself from the constant pressure of a new culture and breath. I would listen to music I was used to at home, I brought a favorite book and was able to read.
I felt my mental health was better during my study abroad than at home, I enjoyed being able to remove myself from many of the struggles and issues I faced at home with family pressure, religion, American politics, and academic pressure. Soon after getting into my program, I was able to find some gay friends with which I could share common experiences. This helped me to connect to a community when I was worried about how I would be treated in a new place. This helped me feel comfortable about my sexuality.” – Jonathan Lingard, Colombia Alum, 2022
“It did not take me too long to adjust since my roommates and homestay were so helpful. When I first arrived I struggled with learning the language and culture. I was so used to being on guard and moving so fast, and when I got there I soon learned I had nothing to fear. Another challenge was being so far from my family and friends. I felt very alone for a while, until I met my friends. They began expressing the same feelings I did and that comforted me so much knowing I wasn’t alone in how I was feeling. Whenever I felt upset or frustrated I would walk around the city. It forced me to look outside myself and appreciate the city around me. In addition, I would also hang out with friends at bars and coffee shops and just talk…I was forced to look outside myself because I was alone (meaning I came to Spain alone). At my home university I had my friends and even my family near so I almost depended on them to hear my pain and almost try and fix it (which is never a good idea). So it was a huge jump for me, but I believe in the end it saved my life.
I found a lot of time to reflect, from riding on the bus or subway, to simply being in my room. I was always thinking, but I was able to think freely and positively. I had to learn how to properly speak to myself, I couldn’t keep up with the same bad habits that left me struggling to get up everyday. Now granted there were days abroad I failed, but I never allowed it to hold onto me. I had to remind myself I was a person I loved and it was not fair to give love I could not give myself. In saying that I found my friends I made abroad to be inspirational and unforgettable. I admire everyone I got to know because in the end they also helped me in this journey. They helped me feel at home and I am forever grateful for the relationships I made.” – Jurnee Starks, Spain Alum, 2021
“I was actually able to do a lot of reflection when I was abroad. Too much reflection that I ended up switching my major haha. But really, everyday I was there I appreciated all the small things more and became grateful that I was able to study abroad. Just a simple bus or subway ride made me think a lot. Not always good things, usually it was though. As much as you are having fun- reflect on your day. The memories, friends, and experience.” – Samantha Viacrusis, South Korea Alum, 2021
“I let myself feel every emotion. As silly as it may sound it was super important and helpful to express what I felt in order stay grounded. There were moments I felt super excited to try new things, but as a student there were overwhelming moments as well. Once I learned to be okay with not always feeling okay, I was able to manage many other little things. Reflect and deep breaths.” – Anonymous, South Korea Alum, 2021
After Abroad: What did you learn from this in relation to your mental health? Knowing what you know now, what would you say to your previous self (before they went abroad)?
“Even today, I still look back and think, “did I really do that? Did I really go there?”. It still seems so surreal...I think this journey only taught me more about myself and how I handle difficult times. I learned how to find support systems anywhere, how to adapt to new environments, and also gained more knowledge on how to use my resources to take care of myself. This trip taught me that I really am capable of anything, and that there are no limitations to what I can achieve, which is essential for me to always remember as a first-generation student. If I could talk to myself before I went abroad, I would tell her how studying abroad in South Korea is going to change her entire life in the most beautiful way. She has no idea how incredible the person is that resulted from this trip, and how it has only enhanced her passion for helping people, admiring other cultures and backgrounds, and how much more adamant she is going to be about chasing her dreams of becoming a clinical psychologist. It is a chain reaction that has and will continue to set her up for the beginning that comes after the end of study abroad.
Today, I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity and am blessed to have been able to go. It is an experience I know I would have regretted for the rest of my life had I not boarded the plane and went. South Korea had been my dream destination since I was in high school. I owe that all to the Korean boy band BTS, who not only helped me through some difficult in moments in my life with their inspiring music, but also taught me to love myself. Without a doubt, choosing to study abroad was the best adventure I ever chose to embark on as a college student.” – Abby Wellings, South Korea Alum, 2021
“I am still currently on my study abroad, however I have seen myself grow over my study abroad. I have realized that life can look however I want, there is nothing to stop me from accomplishing what I set my mind to. There is a world bigger than the small bubble that I am used to. I think i would tell myself to find joy in every moment, no need to look to the future, just enjoy the now. Not everything is going to be perfect, but roll with the punches because this experience is once in a lifetime.” – Jonathan Lingard, Colombia Alum, 2022
“In the end I absolutely loved traveling abroad, it was a dream come true. I slowly began to unpack, day to day. In addition, I began to appreciate my home more and my family. I learned my mental health did not have to control me and that I was not my anxiety or depression. I learned so much about myself and my strength. This experience is one to always remember and take with me forever. I do not know if I could say anything to my younger self, and I say this because they would not truly listen. They couldn’t see the world outside of the cloudy skies and past embarrassments. I am so thankful for studying abroad and plan to keep traveling for the rest of my life.” – Jurnee Starks, Spain Alum, 2021
“It took me awhile to unpack my time abroad. It was not until about two months of being back home that I realized I am home from abroad and it was not a fever dream (a running joke with my friend group). Sharing pictures and talking about my experience allows me to relive my wonderful experience and I hope others can have the same joy I had.” – Samantha Viacrusis, South Korea Alum, 2021
“My experience abroad has motivated me to explore other opportunities for traveling abroad.” – Anonymous, South Korea, 2022
Studying abroad can be an intense and potent experience. There can be moments of heightened bliss paired with moments of difficulty and confusion. When you get to a new culture with so many dynamic factors you may notice shifts in your mood, interests, or energy levels. This is normal and with self-awareness, supportive community, and personalized tools you will be ready to ride the waves of your experience.
And remember that ISA is here to help along the way! If there’s anything you’d like to discuss about your mental wellbeing abroad, please reach out to us. Your Program Manager is your best point of contact pre-departure and your on-site Resident Director is available throughout your program. Thanks for reading and sending well wishes for your program!
Inspired by our alumni’s journeys and want to discover your own while immersing yourself in a study abroad program? Fill out your details below to let our team know and we’ll help you find your adventure today!