Study Abroad Challenges: Tips for Dealing with Challenges Abroad

Study Abroad Challenges: Tips for Dealing with Challenges Abroad

There are many different kinds of study abroad challenges that you will likely have to face when you start your program. Some of these challenges include culture shock, language barriers, possible sickness, general school stress and more. If you already struggle with anxiety, like I do, then you should prepare yourself for unexpected situations.

While studying abroad is an amazing experience and I highly recommend it, I’m here to tell you about some of the challenges you may face studying abroad, how to deal with them, and the biggest challenge I faced while studying abroad in Chile.

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Getting Around: RENTAL CARS

Tip to Avoid Stress: Arrive Well Before Classes Start

Valparaiso Government Building | Study Abroad Challenges
Hanging out in Valparaiso, Photo taken by my friend, Javiera.

I made sure to arrive in Santiago, Chile a few weeks before my classes started so that I could have time to explore and get adjusted to the time change. These first couple of weeks were fascinating and I got to see so much of Santiago and other nearby cities. The host family I was living with have a daughter around my age who was also in university at the time. She was studying in Valparaiso so I got to hang out with her there and let her show me around. It was a ton of fun!

I would highly suggest arriving to your destination well before classes start like I did. It helps to give yourself time to settle in before classes start so you aren’t totally overwhelmed.

10 Common Study Abroad Challenges You Might Face:

There are many study abroad challenges that you might come across. Everyone is different, so some of these might be harder for you than others. It also depends on where you go and how different the place you are going is from your home country. First off, let me share some of the common study abroad challenges you might face and then I’ll share the two main challenges I faced in my personal semester abroad.

1. Language Barriers

Question Mark, language barriers

If you go to study abroad somewhere where you don’t speak the language, chances are you will face a language barrier. This could happen in class if your classes are taught in a foreign language, it could happen when you go out to eat or buy groceries, or it could happen when you’re trying to make friends.

The best way to fix this issue is to see if your school has a language partner program so you can be paired with someone who will help you learn the language, as long as you help them learn yours. You could also sign up for language classes.

2. Cultural Differences and Culture Shock

world map, study abroad challenges and culture shock

Cultural differences can be hard to get used to, even if you don’t experience culture shock. In some cultures, for example, it is very rude to be late to something, but in others, being late is considered the norm.

Another example of cultural differences is how in Chile, people kiss on the cheek when they meet each other, even if it’s the first time they’ve met. That was something that was hard to get used to when I studied in Chile.

The best way to fix this issue is to read up on cultural customs in the country you will be studying in. It would also be a good idea to talk to friends that you meet there about how to behave in certain circumstances if you ever become unsure.

Related article: How to Deal with Culture Shock & Reverse Culture Shock

3. Homesickness

homesickness while studying abroad

I honestly didn’t get homesick until halfway through my fourth month of studying abroad, but it hit me hard when it did. If you’ve never been away for your family for this long, you might get homesick at some point. Being away from family and friends for a long time can be challenging, especially if there is a big-time difference.

The best way to deal with homesickness is to make sure you arrange to Skype or FaceTime your family and friends. When you aren’t busy catching up with friends and family, I would highly suggest trying to keep yourself busy. Meet up with the friends you’ve met abroad and make time to have fun and explore!

4. Budgeting Yourself

It can be hard to budget yourself when all you want to do is go on another weekend trip with all your new friends. Budgeting in another country can also be hard because often there are so many different foods and restaurants and experiences you want to have that you can’t have in your home country.

The best way to stay on top of your budget is to keep track of it. Go into Numbers (Mac) or Excel (PC) or even just write out your own budget and pin it to your wall. Be sure to set aside an appropriate amount of money each month for rent, food, tuition, and transportation. Next, make sure that you also set aside some money each month for weekend trips and fun outings.

5. Staying Motivated to Do Well in Classes

studying in university

Staying motivated in classes can get super tough when all you want to do is go explore the city or countryside. It’s even worse when the weather is nice or when you’re being taught by a professor you don’t like much. However, it is important to do well so that you can graduate on time.

The best way to stay motivated in classes is to get an accountability partner. Get together with a friend and become study partners with them. Make sure the friend you choose to do this with is also serious about their school work and isn’t someone who will just goof off all the time. Check in on each other regularly to make sure each other has done their homework.

6. Getting Sick or Injured

You might get sick or injured while you’re living abroad. If it’s just a cold, you can likely push through it by making tea or having a friend bring you some soup. If it’s a more serious sickness or injury you might need more help to heal yourself.

The best way to handle getting sick or injured abroad is to make sure you have traveler’s insurance and to go to a doctor. Look up where the closest clinic to you is and go there. Be sure to bring your passport, student ID and traveler’s insurance card as well. You could also ask a trusted friend to come with you for support.

7. Making Friends

travel friends

It can sometimes be hard to make friends at first, especially if you don’t know the local language. I got lucky when I studied abroad and made some of the best friends I’ve ever had. You might not make any friends right away, but when you do, they might just be turn into lifelong friendships.

Some ways you can make friends abroad are by getting involved in your university’s clubs and extracurricular programs. Another way is to not be scared to start a conversation with the person sitting next to you in class, even if it’s in Spanglish or another jumble of languages.

8. Adapting to a Different Teaching / School Style

university challenges

The way that the university I studied at was set up was so different from what I was used to. First off, I went to a much smaller university by comparison in Canada. However, the University in Chile had multiple campuses all over the city that I had to balance my schedule between. I also was taking the majority of my classes in Spanish too, which was difficult to adapt to.

The best way to adapt to a different teaching or school style is to find out as much about the school as you can before you go. Make sure you also look into course overviews and check how much homework and how many tests you will be getting. This can vary greatly across countries. For example, in Canada we have tests quite often, but I’ve heard that in certain places in Europe, you only get one giant test that covers everything at the end of each semester.

9. Getting Lost

You might get lost a few times while you’re exploring your new campus, or simply the city that you’re staying in. Don’t panic because it is totally normal to lose your bearings a few times.

The best way to find where you are is either to ask a local, or to check Google Maps. In order to check Google Maps you will need to make sure you have your cell phone unlocked before you go, so you can get a SIM card in the country you will be studying in.

10. Keeping Track of Your Transfer Credits

transfer credits and studying abroad

Keeping track of which courses qualify for transfer credits from your new school and which don’t can be daunting as well. If you can, try to book your course schedule before you arrive. However, keep in mind that some schools might not offer this option.

The best way to keep track of your transfer credits is to make a spreadsheet with all the courses from your own university that you want to take the equivalent of in your study abroad university. Then, either book these courses online and make sure they transfer, or meet up with a professor when you arrive to make sure everything looks good. It’s also a good idea to have a university advisor or study abroad mentor that you can email back and forth with from your home university.

My Biggest Study Abroad Challenge: Registering for Courses

City Centre of Valparaiso, Chile, Study Abroad Challenges
City Centre of Valparaiso

In one of my first weeks in Chile, I attended my schools’ International Student Orientation and it was so exciting. I met tonnes of fellow exchange students from all over the world and we were all so pumped to start registering for courses because PUC (Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile) has a “shopping week”. This means we can try out whatever classes we want, see if we like them, and then register. Sounds fun right?

Wrong. First of all “registering” for a course wasn’t so simple. I thought I could just sign up for the classes I wanted online. Instead, everyone had to go talk to the dean of the faculty in person to register, so if you’re like me and you’re taking classes from three or four different faculties, you have to navigate the maze that is Santiago, go to different campuses, and talk to all the deans.

Because there was only room in each class for a certain number of people, all the students actually needed to make up their minds and register for classes quickly so that they can get into their classes. Side note: this was all done in Spanish, meaning my broken Spanglish wasn’t making it easy.

My Other Big Study Abroad Challenge: Transfer Credits

Views of Santiago, Study Abroad Challenges
Views of Santiago

Did I mention transfer credits? They’re these little points that need to transfer to your school back in wherever-you-came-all-the-way-from. Now, being as organized as I am, I planned out exactly which courses to take before Monday morning.

However, I got all the times of those courses wrong. So I missed my first class on Monday and my second one was canceled. On Tuesday, my alarm decided it didn’t want to wake me up. Either I slept through it (which is crazy because it was supposed to go off like five times), or it just decided it didn’t want to work that day. Anyways I missed my first class, but luckily I was still able to register for it and I was thrilled because it was a dance class that I could get credit for as an elective

school schedule agenda

Except that I came back to my apartment to read an email from my adviser back in Canada saying I probably wouldn’t  be able to take that class. Or half of the other classes I had chosen. They simply wouldn’t have transferred properly and I wouldn’t have received credits for them. So then I had to go back to the drawing board. That same day I finished making up two different timetables. One was for if I was able to take that dance class and one is for if wouldn’t be able to take it.

Next I just needed to finish putting the course codes, timetables, course descriptions, and syllabuses into my Transfer Credit Portal to make sure the courses transferred properly. This sounds okay but it actually took me way too long. This is because it’s hard enough navigating a university website, but doing it in Spanish presents a whole new challenge.

Study Abroad Challenges, street art in chile
Siempre means ‘Always’ in Spanish; Street Art from Valparaiso

The good thing is, all of us exchange students were in the exact same boat. We were all getting stressed together which means that once that week was over, we all celebrated by getting lost in the Andes, drinking too many terremotos and pisco sour, and exploring the beautiful city that is Santiago.

Don’t Do What I Did, Plan Your Courses in Advance!

If you are about to go study abroad take my advice and research the courses you want to take way ahead of time. Do not leave it until the last minute. Many universities throughout the world have multiple campuses in the same city. Make sure your courses are all at one campus or that you have enough time between classes to get to different campuses. Above all else take a deep breath, the first week is the hardest and after you get through it you will be over the moon with gratitude since you chose to study abroad.

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2 thoughts on “Study Abroad Challenges: Tips for Dealing with Challenges Abroad”

  • Amanda Davison says:

    Hey April,

    Are you using Google Chrome? It either automatically, or has an add-on, that offers to translate any website that isn’t in English into English for you. It’s not perfect, but it might make navigating a Spanish University’s website significantly easier.

    I totally understand your pain of figuring out class times and sleeping through alarms. I definitely set my alarm for 6pm when I needed to set it for 6am while I was in Germany. (That was the experience that made me switch to the 24 hour clock. I haven’t switched back!) And I’m super prone for getting on the wrong trains. I got used to building in a half-hour buffer period so I could have enough time to realize I’d screwed up, back track, and still be somewhat on time for things.

    It will get easier! Have an amazing time.



    • Yes I am but it doesn’t work for all the sites here. Haha sorry I replied soooo late.

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