I Came Back Early From Abroad — And That’s OK.

study abroad


I remember touring colleges as a senior in high school. Every tour guide and admissions counselor touted their colleges’ excellent study abroad programs. The statistics were off the charts–50% of juniors go abroad or nearly 80% of this year’s junior class studied off-campus. Great, I thought, Obviously I’ll do the same. Three years later, when it was finally time to make a decision as a sophomore at Kenyon, my thoughts were more or less the same. Everybody goes abroad. The people that don’t? Lame. Afraid. After all, I am a French literature, Anthropology double major. We are globally minded. We are supposed to do these types of things.

With these notions blindly leading the way, I set about choosing my program. Going to France as a French major? Psh. Typical. Europe was decidedly not for me. Having previously studied various parts and aspects of Africa with great interest (and keeping my language requirement in mind), I looked to the vast continent with a population of over a billion people for answers. I narrowed my options down to a program in Senegal and a program in Madagascar–two nations with French as an official language. I eventually dismissed the Senegal program after a friend referred to it as a “white kids in Africa kind of deal” due to its vague focus. Madagascar it was.

I attended the OCS meeting in the spring of sophomore year. I sat smugly in the back row of Philomathesian, exchanging irritated glances with my friends, wondering why I was required to waste the precious hours of a Sunday afternoon discussing a trip I wouldn’t embark on for another four months. I remember when Marne Ausec from Global Engagement talked about the culture shock curve. I remember when she recounted the various emails she had received from students pleading to come home. She warned, “Some of you will come home.” Not me, I thought. That will never be me.

But it was me.

Two and a half weeks into my program, I was holed up in my home-stay bedroom, sobbing. I’m a failure. Why can’t I do this? I berated myself constantly. But this self-lashing was all too familiar–and that recognition scared me even more. Major depression has shadowed me for much of my life. A stereotypically trippy come-to-Jesus moment last fall made me realize that I had simply forgotten how to be happy, and I sought help and medication soon after. As I laid on my bed at my home-stay, knocked into lethargy by an emergency Xanax, I realized that my depression was suddenly back at its zenith, and that it had brought it’s nasty friend called “anxiety” to play. I felt myself sliding down the spiral of despair with a one way ticket to rock bottom. My invisible assailant was back.

I could rationalize what was happening. I told myself, It‘s just culture shock. It’s just the language barrier. It will go away. But it didn’t. No matter how interested I was in the Malagasy people and culture, I was powerless to overthrow my depression. I became defensive. For the first time, I lost my faithful sense of humor. I realized that what I was feeling wasn’t merely culture shock. No amount of tough love could help me swallow it. I needed help.

Something that no program discusses in its happy handout is that going abroad at this point in your life might not be the right choice. They don’t mention that many mental health disorders peak or emerge at this time in our lives. Likewise, given the powerful stigmas that surround both study abroad and mental health, you will be hard pressed to find an honest discussion of others’ emotional experiences while off campus.

Fortunately for me, Kenyon–my safe space–accepted me with open arms and has allowed me to complete the remainder of the semester on the hill. When I decided to return, I imagined that my depression would disappear with my arrival at Kenyon. Just as I had underestimated everything about my abroad experience, I overestimated my ability to bounce back. Depression and anxiety do not simply “take a hike” when you want them to–or when you expect them to.

I don’t wish to undermine the enrichment that comes from a successful off-campus study experience. I’m glad I took a chance–I learned loads about myself and Madagascar in those two and a half weeks. However, I do wish for those who are considering going abroad to honestly examine themselves, and the stigmas that weigh on all of us. Pay heed to the things you simply cannot prepare for, such as coping with different gender roles or living in a rigidly hierarchical society. These things are easy to brush off before you leave, but inescapable once you arrive.

Depression and anxiety are invisible aggressors that are just as painful and true as a broken limb.To not address issues of mental health in the discourse of study abroad is to do a disservice to ourselves and to our peers. Going abroad had real, lasting consequences for my health.

So I came back–and that’s ok.

16 responses

  1. thank you for sharing your story– it’s one that needs to be told. over and over and over.

    i became deeply depressed while i was abroad. by the time i was honest with myself about how i was feeling, i had about 3 weeks to go and couldn’t afford a plane ticket home anyway. looking back, i’m glad i stayed. but especially toward the end, my life became very miserable and very difficult.

    before you go abroad, please please please consider the realities of your mental health. do you have enough medication? do you have the right medication? are you going to need medication? does your program offer counseling services? do you have a way of being in touch with your current therapist? are you prepared to live in a culture where people may not necessarily understand mental illness in the same way that you do?

    it’s not necessary that the answer to all of these questions be “yes.” but you should be aware of them– from the time you are choosing your program, to the day you set foot in your new country, and all throughout your program.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this. I chose not to go abroad, in no small part because I have anxiety that I wasn’t sure I could keep in check well enough to handle the change. I don’t regret the decision – like you said, junior year isn’t the right time for everyone – but it’s been hard trying to justify that decision to people who assume everyone “should” go abroad. It’s nice knowing I’m not the only one who’s dealt with this situation.

  3. I struggle with social anxiety and am currently studying abroad. I don’t know whether it’s making adjusting easier or harder—easier, because I have experienced change like this before (e.g. moving to Kenyon) and have developed a coping toolset; harder, because I have never been more alone. The semester abroad is often presented as a transformative narrative in which you experience spiritual growth or “find yourself” or whatever, but I just keep thinking of a line from a Cavafy poem I like: “No ship exists to take you from yourself.”

    To respond more directly, I empathize with you. The feelings of guilt associated with not “properly” appreciating the opportunity you’ve been given can be all-consuming, but there is no shame in returning home if it’s what feels right. Your welfare needs at all times to be your highest priority.

    This is an important conversation to have.

  4. I think it’s really good that you’ve started this conversation. It’s difficult when all your friends get into their chosen programs and they’re so excited about the *life-changing* experiences they expect to have, while you have to sit there and try to convince yourself that you “didn’t really want to go that much anyway”. I did want to go but I knew I wasn’t stable enough for that kind of excitement and stress.

    A major problem with study abroad is that you have to figure it out so far ahead of time. How can anyone really know how they’ll feel in a year? First semester sophomores usually haven’t even had a chance to take a lot of classes they might be interested in, so it seems like a lot of people get boxed into programs and majors too early.

    Staying for junior year turned out to be a wonderful decision for me. If you’re not feeling it and you don’t have a concrete reason, that’s okay – the most important thing is to be realistic and to be honest with yourself about your expectations. A good thing to remember: the world will (theoretically) be out there forever but you only have a small window of time at Kenyon.

  5. Although I graduated two years ago, I decided to cancel my time abroad to stay on campus due to an eating disorder that I was really struggling with at the time (and beginning to actually recover from presently). I was so ashamed and reading this reminded me again that I am not alone in that. Deciding to come back took great courage and I am glad that you were able to do what was right for you. Life happens, you grow. Thank you for sharing your story and reminding me that I’m not alone.

  6. i’ve been struggling a lot with anxiety lately and it’s really great to hear people talk about it openly as a real issue

  7. I’m so happy that you are able to share your experience so that others with mental illnesses are able to take this into consideration when planning to study abroad. It takes a lot of courage and I applaud you!

  8. Thank you so much for sharing this. I am currently studying abroad, and my depression and social anxiety are worse than ever. It’s made it so all I want to do is lie in my bed, which makes me feel like I’ve failed. I feel guilty that I have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be living in a foreign country and I’m wasting it by not having a proper experience.
    I’m not coming home. I know myself well enough to know that, no matter how bad it got, I wouldn’t be able to come home. That’s not a good thing, or me saying that I’m stronger than you– I’m just stubborn to the point of stupidity. I really want to thank you and applaud you for sharing this, because I think it’s something that many people can empathize with but don’t want to talk about. It really made me feel less alone.

  9. Pingback: If I Went Off-Campus, So Can You | The Thrill

  10. Currently abroad. I suffer from anxiety & OCD. I was not prepared for this. It’s day one and I already want to go back home. No one told me how overwhelming this all is, all I heard was you’ll love it. It’ll be the best! It’s so much harder than I imagine. I am going to push forth, but I feel like if I go home I will have failed myself.

  11. I’ve been abroad in London for the past week (only a week), and I was supposed to stay here for another 4. I have been ceaselessly crying for the past couple of days. Our trip isn’t very structured and as a result, I have had far too much time on my hands to sit around and think, and my depression and anxiety have returned and proven to be ridiculously menacing. When I first got here, I really thought I could do it. But as time has gone by, I realize I was not in the right headspace to embark on this trip, and I am going crazy thinking about what all the people on the trip are going to say about me once I leave, the money my parents are losing (luckily, I can complete the remainder of my classes online), and worst of all, my depleting opinion of myself. I feel so low and incompetent, even though my friends keep texting me, adamantly insisting that everything is okay, and that I simply bit off more than I could chew.
    I didn’t mean to type so much, but long story short, I appreciate this so much. Like someone above me mentioned, I’m so sorry that you had this experience, but I am so glad that I stumbled upon it, because it is so comforting to know that I am not alone. And starting this difficult conversation is important. Thank you so much.

  12. Thank you for this. I have not been diagnosed with anxiety or depression as I have never spoken to anyone about it, however I feel that were I to speak to someone, it would be likely that I have both. I arrived in Malta a week ago to study abroad for a year, and it has been extremely tough so far. At first I was so unbelievably homesick and upset that I had to keep stopping myself from crying while around others at my accommodation or at uni. I am still homesick, but it is getting easier. My biggest problem now is the fact that no matter what I am doing, I have this overwhelming feeling of emptiness. I visited the Blue Lagoon at the weekend which was stunning, and normally this would make me so happy, but I felt nothing. I am surrounded by other international students but feel incredibly lonely. The university itself has disappointed me a lot; they are so unorganised, yet overly strict and I have absolutely no motivation to do university work. Especially as it has no effect on my end grade. I feel that a year is just too long for me to feel this way, and that my mental health is really suffering as a result. I feel like no one ever speaks about the fact that sometimes, studying abroad ISN’T actually the right decision for someone, and that should be ok.

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