The Honest Truth About Studying Abroad

I spend a lot of time at school convincing my friends and peers to study abroad. Truthfully, I think it is an experience that too many people pass up during their college years and one that’s nearly impossible to recreate once you’ve received your diploma. Every year, I hear alumni woefully proclaim, “I wish I’d taken the opportunity to travel when I was still in college.”

As students, we tend to fill our lives to the brim with extracurricular activities, work, and courses for our majors. Every extra minute in the day belongs to friends, or sleep, or relaxing. For me, studying abroad was a way to get away from all of that and explore a new culture and language. I wanted to go to the most unfamiliar place I’d ever visited. For me, that was Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – ranked that year as the New York Times #1 Best Place to Travel. I couldn’t have been more excited about visiting the land of beaches, Carnaval, and samba, all while learning Portuguese and (hopefully) making some new friends.

At 20 years old I felt ready to move to another continent by myself for half a year. Crazy, right?


So You Want the Truth About Studying Abroad?

So you want the truth about studying abroad?  Honestly, I grew a lot and was humbled greatly by my experiences in Brazil. My story is marked by challenges and obstacles, but also by pride and compassion. The honest truth is that every component of my study abroad experience shaped the end result, and helped me learn in ways I could not have experienced here in Houston.

The Bumpy Beginning

During my first month in Brazil, I lived with a single woman in her two-bedroom, high-rise apartment. She spoke no English and talked at the speed of light. Her apartment was filthy; so bad, in fact, that I broke out in hives the first day I was there. On my third day, I contracted food poisoning and was nauseated throughout my entire city tour. The amazing sights of Rio were blemished by the fact that I couldn’t stand up straight for more than ten consecutive minutes. After just four days in Rio, I broke down crying to my mother that I couldn’t stay there. I wanted to go home. I was completely unprepared for this.

The Honeymoon Phase

After a few weeks, I finally started to make friends. I went out to bars, hung out at the beach, and met a ton of people. I switched homestays and formed a tight-knit relationship with my host mom, who became one of my best friends throughout my time in Brazil. Life was good – I was spending almost every day at the beach, learning how to cook, and even exercising in my free time. Rio really was panning out to be everything I’d hoped, plus I was getting a nice golden tan to boot.

Studying was going well, too. I was learning Portuguese at lightning speed and excelling in all of my classes. Not only was I taking all of my classes in Portuguese, but I had also started volunteering at an Italian NGO in Rocinha, one of Brazil’s largest favelas. I couldn’t believe I was actually teaching classes in Portuguese and bonding with local high school students too. With a growing affection for my new city, I felt like I was on top of the world.

The Slump

One of my greatest hopes, when I came to Brazil, was that I’d make friends with Brazilians. It didn’t quite happen. Many of the Brazilian students at my school, PUC-Rio, were grouped off into cliques like some kind of high school movie. I felt lonely. After almost three months of being away from my boyfriend, friends, and family, I started to really miss the feeling of acceptance and love. I was running low on money and couldn’t go out every night like the rest of the exchange students. I didn’t identify with the intense party culture of studying abroad but wasn’t the kind of person who wanted to stay home all of the time. I felt like no matter what I did, I couldn’t connect with anyone.

Luckily, this was the time when I found my favorite group of friends, a group we appropriately called “Gente Boa,” or “good people” in Portuguese. We were all American exchange students (and one from New Zealand) from different backgrounds, but we really hit it off and began to spend more and more time together. We went out for sushi at 11 PM in the city’s favelas, explored new beaches, sneaked into luxury hotels, and of course went out on the town. At this point, I knew the slump would soon be over.

The Finish Line

Once I finally found my place in Brazil and began hanging out with my new friends, my remaining time flew by. My mom visited and I got to spend a week showing her around the new niche I had made for myself in Rio. I had saved up enough money to travel to a few other cities in Brazil, so after classes ended I picked up my bags and headed to the Northeast region, where I saw some amazing places like Salvador, Recife, and Jericoacoara. After that, I spent the holidays with my boyfriend and his family in the North Zone of Rio, meanwhile saying goodbye to all of the amazing friends I had made in the process.

If I could go back and redo any part of my time in Brazil, it would have been the last month of my stay. This was when I felt like everything had fallen into place – I had a solid group of friends, lots of amazing visitors, and of course, a fair amount of travel. However, I also attributed a lot of my happiness during this time to having experienced the hard times I had faced earlier. Deep in my heart, I knew that I had grown by leaps and bounds from this opportunity and that studying abroad truly had changed my perspective on life. For this, I was truly thankful.

Learn More About Travel in Brazil!

The Takeaways

In the end, I was appreciative of the variety of experiences that studying abroad gave me, the good and the bad. I learned from them. I took them to heart. I apply the lessons I learned to situations in my life back at home all the time. Studying abroad was kind of like running a marathon – something I wanted to do for myself, despite the pain and hard work, to prove that I could indeed survive for half a year in seemingly one of the most foreign countries I could have chosen. There were highs and lows, but once the end was in sight, I knew I had made the right decision.

The honest truth about studying abroad is that it’s a comprehensive experience. You’ll create amazing memories and build lifelong friendships. You’ll feel lonely and you’ll miss home. You’ll crave the comfort of familiarity and the ease of life without language barriers.


Learn More About the Study Abroad Experience

There are a number of things students can do to improve their time abroad. Communicate. Reach out to others. Get involved and own your experience. Even when you’re down, pick yourself up and try to see what new things you can learn and explore. Every ounce of energy and effort you put into your experience will be returned to you exponentially. While it takes a great deal of willpower and strength, the truth about studying abroad is that it will open your mind and heart.

Most importantly, the experience at large will become a part of you, something you’ll take with you wherever you go and share with whomever you meet. No matter how difficult your difficulties and obstacles were, this is the real value and the truth about studying abroad – the chance to bring a different place and a new culture a little bit closer to your heart.


Done with college but still want to travel?  Here are 5 Ways to Travel Post-College!


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The Honest Truth About Studying Abroad


36 thoughts on “The Honest Truth About Studying Abroad”

  1. Great post! I’m actually thinking about going abroad to Spain in January, but I still don’t know where in Spain specifically… Thanks for sharing your travel stories, I really enjoy all of them 🙂

    1. Spain is an awesome place to study abroad! I did 6 months in Granada in the south and it was the best experience. Madrid and Barcelona are also great study abroad destinations. Feel free to get in touch if you’d like to discuss more 🙂

  2. Great that it worked out for you. I don’t think I grasped from Facebook how things were going for you in a bad way. It always makes me happy to read about students learning from study abroad experiences, the good and the bad. So many reasons studying abroad can be a great experience. Learning from the bad experiences is right up there.

  3. I agree, not enough students take advantage of oversease exchanges. I did two during my undergrad degree – to Mexico and Denmark. And one of the girls I became friends with on exchange in Mexico was Danish so when I went to Denmark, we spent a lot of time together, and we are still friends to this day. We call each other sisters. I’m so grateful for those experiences… wouldn’t trade them for anything.

  4. It’s good to read this– I read your post on your personal blog that you wrote in the middle of the slump and I’m glad to hear things got better! It’s very normal with study abroad, it happened to me too.

  5. So glad you’ve written this. i did a year abroad in France and I think when you return home theres a pressure to tell everyone how amazing the whole thing was and that you loved every second when honestly, thats not true.

    i had some rough times and was actually quite glad it was over, but now I think back to it and only seem to focus on the best times, so it cant have been all bad!

  6. Great post 🙂 I definitely look back on my studying abroad in Spain and think of things I wish I could have done differently, but overall it was such a great experience. I also feel that 5 months was almost too short of time because it’s always, like you said, in the last couple months that things fall into place.

    I’m traveling again in a similar “study abroad” fashion (living instead of just traveling through), but I’m also working instead of just studying this time. It’s really awesome to be able to relive this type of experience when I’m older and know more of what I want out of it.

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

  7. Studying abroad is so amazing I almost think it should be mandatory. Almost.

    I did a semester in Romania in college and there definitely is that honeymoon/slump/finding your place period.

    And the expat culture really is so often an intense party culture, its so good to be able to find people your speed.

  8. Studying abroad is like going to some place which we are not aware of..!! We’ll see different cultures, food, people, etc. Exploring these all things gives you a real pleasure of life. Kay, Thanks a lot for sharing your experience, it helped me to recollect my memories..!!!

  9. This is so true!! Especially the part about thinking you are going to make lots of friends with locals. When I was living in France I made friends with very few locals actually. But I did find some amazing study abroad friends and would absolutely do it again (and probably will!)

  10. I have ALWAYS regretted not studying abroad. I must admit though, my school was really freaking cool. I went to Florida State University and the party scene, the people from around the country, and city itself was the TRUE college experience. I wouldn’t take it back for the world. But I always thought…. What if I just did one semester abroad? It would have been awesome. But that’s OK…. Been on the road three years now and I have well made up for it! 🙂
    I’m glad everything ended on a good note for you.

  11. It was tough being on the other side. When you got sick or was at the ER for the spider bite and there was nothing I could do about it, I would pray that there were good people there willing to help you. But I had faith that you took those responsible risks seriously and planned for the worst case scenarios. When we came to visit you, I could tell that living abroad had changed your perspective on life. Material things and designer clothes didn’t seem to matter. Things you took for granted, like staying at a Marriott or eating out, seemed delightful for you. Mom

  12. Studied abroad in Freiburg, Germany (IES Program) my Junior year then attended summer school in Vienna the summer after. Well, “studied” in a sense. We soon discovered that classes offered at the university had no homework, no testing- nothing. You just attended lectures. We had to take a few courses at the Institute running the program and those did require minimal homework and a final exam. The learning experience, thus, wasn’t really at the university. It was immersion in the culture. My only regret is that I mainly hung around with other Americans when not traveling around on my own…

  13. I can totally relate! Studying abroad during college was much harder than I thought it would be. Being in an unfamiliar environment for a long time is infinitely harder when you’re expected to have the Time of Your Life and the homesickness can be unbearable. But you’re right, it’s a comprehensive experience and you learn sooo much about yourself. Great post!

  14. what a refreshing post! study abroad is a fantastic experience (i did it twice, to paris and shanghai) but there are definitely little bumps along the way. brazil sounds like it was a fantastic time


  15. A good read. Life a student is quite a journey. Plus you add a foreign land to that, then you get a double whammy of adventure.

    The call of studying abroad has for a long time tickled my interest. Maybe you could right a follow up on how to find inexpensive studying opportunities abroad.


    1. Thanks for the suggestion – I’ll definitely keep that in mind! There are also a lot of posts on my own blog about studying, traveling, and living abroad cheaply as a student.

  16. LOVE this post! I remember my study abroad coordinators telling us to expect all of these phases, and I definitely went through all of them myself.

    Thanks so much for sharing your experiences, Kay!

  17. Great post!
    I am currently doing my whole bachelor degree in the UK (I’m from Norway) and next year I’ll be moving to China for one year. I’m not even missing home that much, but the thought of going to China and leaving all my friends in the UK makes me not want to go! Weird how things work out 🙂

  18. I’ve never understood why most Americans overseas seem to end up hanging out with other Americans or with other non-natives. It’s not that difficult to make friends with the local population and, having spent a lot of time in Brazil, I find it interesting that you couldn’t. Particularly as you speak Portuguese?

    I currently live in Thailand and 95 percent of my friends are Thai. I just don’t see the point of moving halfway across the world and then making friends with the same type of people you could have met back home.

    Then again, being a naturalized US citizen, but one who couldn’t wait to get out of America and with no interest in ever going back, I’ve noticed Americans have the most difficulty of any nationality acclimatizing to a new culture. I’ve always said that’s because of the “everything is bigger and better in America mentality”. A fact I wish more Americans would get over, as it’s simply not true.

    1. I actually had the same experience when I studied abroad in London, where I obviously spoke the same language. My experience was that most of the local students weren’t that interested in be-friending kids who would be leaving in just a couple of months. Most of the social activities offered to study abroad students were just for study abroad students, and information on other events was scarce.

      When I lived in London a year later the experience was very different, but I think study abroad programs should find ways to cultivate cross-cultural relationships.

    2. I’d agree with Steph on this one – it wasn’t an issue of acclimating to a new culture or even being anti-social, it was simply that the local college students had no interest in befriending exchange students. One of the reasons behind this, I think, is that the school I went to had a lot of exchange students, hundreds per semester. The local students kind of saw us as encroaching on their space and wanted nothing to do with it! I’ve visited other places longer-term and this phenomenon simply wasn’t the case.

  19. I didn’t have the opportunity to study abroad when I was in college but there was one phase that I thought about quitting it altogether, leave home and become a full-time nomad. That was the time school wasn’t making any sense to me. So I left university, left the country and wandered around without money for many months, hitchhiking, couchsurfing, volunteering in exchange of food and bed etc etc. The experience gave me the much needed perspective to go back to school after almost a year and finish my degree!

  20. Thank you for sharing this. I am studying in Madrid currently and have only completed my first week. Although I know it will only get better, I have been experiencing major culture shock and really missing home. I just can’t wait for classes to start… I’m sure having a schedule of some sort will help to ease into the culture here. Again, muchas gracias!

  21. Hii, ur post is vry nice bt i have one question for studing abroad is it necessary to be gud in studes…im from india and im average in studes and want to study abroad…i hope u can ans my question..

  22. Wonderful post! 🙂
    Since I was 15 I always wanted to study in England when the time was right.
    Now I am 23 and still dreaming about it – which sucks.
    But it’s definitly something I really want to do and I know that if I won’t do it, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life. So yeah…I need to save some money and fulfull my dream! 🙂

  23. Thanks for such a great post! I am just over halfway done with a gap semester in Panama, and I can completely identify with what you describe here. It’s so nice to read a blog that talks realistically about all the feelings of exchange, not just the extreme ups or downs. Thanks so much for your insights!

  24. Thank you so much for this. I am just finishing my first week of study abroad in Florianópolis, Brazil and I was really considering coming home because I have just felt like the culture wasn’t right for me and I have really been struggling, but this helped a lot. If you have any more in-depth advice for me while I’m here, I would be more than happy to take it!

    1. vgwilliamson98

      I’m in Floripa right now. I have been here 10 days and school hasn’t started yet and I haven’t made any friends which is the hardest part. What did you do to meet people and keep yourself going?

  25. I agree on the cant make any local friends easily. It is hard for locals to make friends with foreign students who will only be there for only a few months. To make matter worst, you dont speak the local language😰. Currently studying russian in russia, just finished 6 weeks and 4 more months to go.

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