My name is Caroline (she/her), and I’m USAC’s University Relations Coordinator for the North/Central West region of the U.S. I’m a liaison between USAC and universities — answering questions, providing resources, and sharing information about USAC. I love to inspire and empower students to navigate the study abroad process.
I’m also a USAC alumni, who studied abroad on USAC’S Nishinomiya, Japan program. I managed to spend my entire junior year abroad and graduate on time with two majors and a minor, and I saved money while doing so. Study abroad gave me the chance to take coursework I enjoyed (and that my university didn’t offer), dramatically improve my Japanese, explore my identity, build confidence, and develop my intercultural skill set.
Based on what I know now, I’d like to share some advice. While I can only speak to my experience, I hope my reflections might strike a chord with anyone who struggles with navigating their identity, mental health, language learning journey, and/or the uncertainty of the unknown.
Lean into Discomfort
Don’t be afraid to lean into the discomfort of something new. That’s where you’ll grow the most. The first few weeks in Japan were nerve-wracking. It was challenging to adjust to using Japanese in day-to-day life and to integrate with my host family and new community. However, I know now how study abroad was a catalyst for my personal growth. Every time I managed to string words into a coherent sentence motivated me to keep learning Japanese and put myself out there more. Every time I successfully navigated my host city made me want to explore more. I didn’t realize it at the time, but so much of my confidence today is from pushing through those moments of discomfort. I am able to adapt and thrive in the unknown, even when I feel uncertain.
Limits to Preparing
Because I was anxious about study abroad, one of my coping mechanisms was to research as much as possible before going abroad. Doing everything I could to be prepared gave me peace in the wake of the unknown. However, life has a way of defying our expectations and thrusting us into unexpected situations.
I wish I would have let go sooner instead of trying to control and plan every aspect of my study abroad experience. For example, I originally planned to only use Japanese and solely befriend Japanese people. In retrospect, that plan was deeply flawed and problematic. For one, I didn’t appreciate how exhausting it would be to live in an all-Japanese environment. For another, I didn’t realize how rewarding it would be to form relationships with other international students and residents. Now I understand how important it is to surrender a bit of control and adapt quickly when my plan no longer serves me.
Navigating My Identity and Mental Health
While I proclaimed study abroad as a great adventure, I also used it as an escape. For many years as a young adult, I hid behind my overachiever personality and “go, go, go” lifestyle to distract me from my tumultuous internal world. I wasn’t ready to be fully honest with myself about who I was or even how much I was struggling with my mental health.
While studying abroad didn’t solve all my problems, it gave me the time and space I needed to reflect and start to address some of my struggles. While I’m skeptical of people who tout travel to find yourself, I must admit that studying abroad helped me see myself differently. Living in Japan freed me from everyone’s expectations back home, and I was able to start fresh and re-explore my identity on my own. I even came out for the first time, and I started to accept the reality of dealing with depressive episodes.
Reflecting on this deeply personal part of my study abroad experience, I feel some sadness for my younger self, but I also know it was a necessary step for me to become more confident in being my most authentic self. Try not to fear who you are. It’s important to extend compassion to others and also yourself. It helped me to recognize my own identity and struggles were valid.
Reverse Culture Shock is Real (but Not all Bad!)
While I obsessed over what I would encounter abroad, I was surprised by having to re-adjust to life back in the States. My reverse culture shock was compounded by me not knowing what it was or how to vocalize my feelings. Most of my family and friends didn’t seem to understand, so my attempts to talk more about my study abroad experience and personal growth often fizzled. I didn’t know how to handle how much I had changed while everything around me seemed the same.
Now, I appreciate that reverse culture shock is normal and common. This period was all part of the process, a growing pain of sorts. This stage was a key component for me to develop and utilize my new intercultural skills to critically examine the cultural assumptions, norms, values, and ethnocentric ideas I grew up with. It helped me empathize with and try to learn more about other people’s lived experiences and recognize the many privileges I was/am afforded in the U.S. One of the best things I did (without realizing how cathartic it would be at the time) was to be get involved by supporting international students, volunteering at my study abroad office, forming a new conversation partner program on campus, taking a leadership role in my school’s Japanese Culture Association, and meeting with other study abroad alumni.
I didn’t realize what an impact studying abroad would have on me as a person, not just a student. Leaning into the discomfort of the unknown helped me build confidence, empathize more with people of diverse backgrounds, develop intercultural skills, learn more about myself, and contribute to my overall personal growth. Studying abroad also changed the trajectory of my academic and professional life. After graduation, I decided to pursue a career in international education, and I moved back to Japan. A few years later, I earned a master’s in international and intercultural communication with a certificate in public diplomacy. Now, I work at USAC and feel excited to be able to support students during their own transformative experiences abroad.
I would like to end by sharing a bit of advice from Sarah Wood: “Remember that no two people in any community will have the same experience, so leave room to create your own.”
Although this quote was intended for people exploring their queer identity, it also applies to study abroad and exploring your place in the world. This is a good reminder to remain open and curious and not be scared to forge your own path.