7 Lessons I Learned During My Study Abroad Experience with Depression

My study abroad experience was strange or maybe just different from what others would expect. I studied abroad in my fall semester of my senior year in Cusco, Peru. I lived in a hostel with other students. The program was separated from the university and there was only around twenty other students in the program from the United States and Australia. Cultural immersion was difficult. When most of my peers went out on the weekend, I stayed in. I had a boyfriend back home at the time and I spent time with him. After class, I would go back and skype with him for hours instead of exploring the city. I felt the compulsion that I needed to spend time with him. I freaked out if I didn’t have internet access. I started to become isolated. Since I didn’t socialize with the other students, I became singled out. I don’t blame them. They did try helping me and now looking back, I am incredibly appreciative that they even reached out to me. I started crying a lot. I started not wanting to even go to class. I didn’t eat a lot. I finally reached out to the program director and asked about services they could provide. He told me to stop talking to people back home. I said I needed more. Eventually, he was able to find me a therapist in the area that spoke English. I saw her for about a month. I don’t think she knows this, but I am internally grateful for her.  A lot of this ended up happening because I technically cheated on my boyfriend back home, which now looking back on it, should have been a sign of our relationship. I was so mad at myself and he really used it against me, which does make sense. He ended up convincing me that if I cared about him and our relationship that I had to go home around Halloween. I did just that. I convinced my mom, God bless her for being understanding towards me, and she helped pay for a round-trip ticket back home. I had a break. I talked to my study abroad office who were amazing. When it was time for me to go back to Peru, I cried a lot in the airport. I knew people were staring but I couldn’t fathom how I could survive another two months in Peru. When I returned, I knew I was still going to struggle. I became involved in a local organization and volunteered with 4 year-olds every day of the week. It helped me immensely. I still struggled. I was still isolated. It was an incredibly difficult time for me.

When I’m looking back now, I have an appreciation for it. It taught me a lot about myself. It pushed me. I made mistakes while I was there that I regret. I wish I allowed myself to connect with the other students on the trip. I wish that I didn’t go home for that week. I wish that I started volunteering sooner. I wish I took advantage of traveling in the area. I wish I was able to practice my Spanish more. But you know what, I didn’t. It is what it is now. I am currently getting my master’s in international education. It didn’t push me away from study abroad. Even with all my challenges and struggles I had, I would still recommend it to others. I believe in it. I do think that says a lot about the field and the experience. I still struggle with anxiety and depression. I struggled with it before I went as well. This experience taught me a lot. Here are some lessons I learned that could possibly help others in the future:

  1. Practice self-care

Self-care has become an integrated part of my life. I think about it constantly. I think about the things that I do that make me feel well and I do my best to do them. Just because you are abroad, doesn’t mean that you can forget about taking care of your mental self. Take time to invest in yourself. If you are constantly moving and going, take a break. If you are feeling overwhelmed, take a step back. There are plenty of links to articles online that discuss this important topic. Take time to research and become aware of what you need.

  1. Become connected to the community

If I didn’t start volunteering in Cusco, I don’t know how my trip would have turned out. All I can say now, though, is that it helped me immensely. I finally started to feel connected to the community and that I was a part of something bigger when I was there. If you are starting to feel isolated or just that you want to become connected, take steps and learn about what is there for you to explore. Connect with locals in whatever works best for you. For me it was volunteering, but if you have organizations at the university where you are studying abroad, join one.

  1. Do what works for you.

While people are studying abroad, they may want or expect different things. Your peers will be taking different classes and investing and exploring topics different than yours. Others will want to explore nearby cities or countries, while you may want to stay in the city where you are studying and become fully integrated into that. Do what you think is best for you to be able to gain what you want from the experience.

  1. It’s important to prepare yourself for where you are going.

Every country is obviously different. Studying abroad in Brazil or Italy, you will be getting two completely different cultures and environments. The food, where you will be staying, the people, the holidays, accessibility, diversity, etc., will all be different. It is important to have some type of basic understanding before you go so you are not completely caught off guard. While I was in Peru, even though I stayed in a hostel, the internet was scarce. Many times it would go out and wouldn’t be fixed for days. People who stayed in homestays had no access to hot water. These may seem like little things, but having to experience it a whole semester can be challenging if you are not prepared.

  1. The staff is there to help.

Maybe it’s my depression or anxiety or maybe this is normal, but I felt bad talking to the staff while I was studying abroad. I didn’t want to bother them. I thought my problems were not important. I thought I would just be a burden. It is important to recognize that staff is there to help you. Talk to a staff member who you feel comfortable with about your concerns and questions, before, during and even after your trip. It helped me. When I came back, I visited the office often and it really helped me unpack my experience and move forward with it.

  1. Don’t compare your experience to others.

So my experience differs from others on many levels. Every student’s experience will be different. When I got back home, I heard other’s raving about their experience abroad. Talking about how many good friends they made and how much they experienced. I, on the other hand, was depressed for most of my semester. I didn’t become close to anyone. I was a mess. I heard others and I kept thinking how I was awful because I didn’t have an experience exactly like theirs.  I found that it was important to remember that my experience was unique. That it helped me get to where I am and that no one can take that experience away from me. It became a part of my story and I needed to own it and accept it. Listen to others, but don’t put your experience down just because you don’t think yours was good enough.

  1. Take classes that fascinate you and push your understanding of the world.

My classes abroad taught me a lot about the culture and the history of where I was in Peru. It was great to learn, and sometimes it was interesting, but it didn’t fascinate me enough. I loved being able to explore ruins for my classes and really see the history and architecture and connect it to where I was and what I was learning. But you know, if those things don’t connect with you, don’t feel like you have to take those classes. It can be interesting just to learn about a subject matter that is important to you but in a different worldly perspective. Be opened minded with your choices and get the best academic experience you can. It will be worth it.

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