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Facing the challenges of study abroad — Corbett scholar Guadalupe Guadarrama

Wreck Beach, Vancouver B.C. Photo credit: Guadalupe Guadarrama.

June 12, 2020

I had the privilege of studying at the University of British Columbia (UBC) for the 2019 – 2020 academic year. In this post, I hope to share with you, the reader, four essential tips I have learned during my time abroad. While it might have been easier to write about commonly-shared topics, I’ve decided to take this as an opportunity to step outside my comfort zone and be vulnerable so that I can shed light on some of the less-talked about challenges one may face as a student abroad.

Be open-minded

Every conversation you have is a chance for a new friendship or relationship of any degree or kind. A key ingredient to this is to be open-minded. Let every conversation be a means to a beginning, not a means to an end. If you come into a conversation with an open mindset, who knows? The conversation might surprise you. It’s natural to have first impressions. There were times during my experience where my first impression of someone was just that–a first impression. Vancouver is a widely diverse city where I have met people from all around the world. I had engaging conversations of all types, from being about pizza (or any type of food in that case) across cultures with an Italian, to friendly debates about the differences between the United States and Canada with a local. There are people of whom my first impression was questionable, to say the least. However, my experiences abroad have taught me that there is always more than meets the eye. I also learned that although our experiences are unique to ourselves, we are all united together by one commonality–we are all human. While life experiences may be different, the emotions that shape us into who we are are also the means of how we can connect. Not only did I learn something new about other cultures or identities, but I learned about myself. I found some conversations required me to deeply reflect on my own beliefs or identities. This thought process made me more conscious of aspects that made me, well, me. 

Take hold of rare opportunities

While I considerately warn others to not try and “do it all”, I would say that taking advantage of opportunities can lead to a change of perspective. Opportunities may come in different forms. For example, I joined the Krav Maga Club at the University of British Columbia  because my home institution, the University of Washington (UW), does not have a club like this. Joining this self-defense club taught me various lessons and changed my perception of strength. Before, I had the perceived notion that in order to fend for myself, I had to be physically strong. However, what participating in this club taught me may also be applied to life. As an average-sized woman, the disadvantages in potentially distressful situations might be evident.

Nonetheless, disadvantages are only allowed that title if one gives them that power. In other words, one can decide to focus on their limits, or they can choose to focus on what gives them strength. My size is an advantage because someone’s assumed perception of me lacks that which is not physically apparent–my wit.

Or, in the wise words of the character Grimm in the movie Mirror Mirror, “people think you can’t be tall if you’re short. That you can’t be strong if you’re not. A weakness is only a weakness if you think of it that way… Before you even draw your sword, you must make an impression on your enemy. If he is deceived by the way you look, the battle’s half won. People think of you as sweet. They don’t expect you to fight dirty. Use that to your advantage.”

Overall, rare opportunities allow for unique growth that may shape your outlook in life.

Write your plans in pencil

This tip is one that I had to learn the hard way. There are two reasons why I recommend this way of planning. The first may seem obvious. As someone with first-hand evidence, humans cannot control the future (that I know of). Yes, plans are used to map out an ideal future, and it may be just me, but if things don’t go according to plan, I become distraught. Months before I began my journey at UBC, I made plans that mapped out my experience down to the walking route to classes that I would take. I know, a little excessive, but I was excited to create an unforgettable experience abroad. To keep the story short, the inevitable happened–construction around campus began and my walking route no longer was an option. No, seriously, it was a nightmare. I had to learn to adapt in several ways to various situations during my time in Vancouver. Let’s just say that I had to adjust so much so that my ideal plan was a strong contrast to my reality.

To paraphrase: I did not expect the unexpected. Which leads me to the second reason I recommend a pencil as your choice of writing instrument. A plan set in stone is a one with high expectations of an unattainable life. Think about it. Without any flexibility, a picture-perfect future is one without the excitement of what makes life such a thrill. In other words, expectations of the future drown out the experiences of the present. No amount of preparation could have helped me foresee the challenges that I experienced. Let me be clear: it’s okay to feel lost at times during a person’s time abroad. Don’t get me wrong, having structure is great, but the point where it dictates every aspect of life will only lead to disappointment. By loosening the reins of expectation and preparing for unpredictability, the blow to my inner perfectionist did not cause me to crumble. We can get so wrapped up in worry about the uncertainty of the future that it causes us to lose sight of what truly matters, the precious fleeting moments of the present.

Rise above your thoughts

Self-talk is something we do often. From “did I remember to turn off the stove,” to “wow, that was so embarrassing. Why am I like this?” Unconsciously, we say to ourselves a great deal more than we realize. That’s why it can be important to become more self-aware and rise above thoughts that may weigh us down. Be alert, because there are several areas of your life where it may be easy to fall into the trap of listening to lies that tear through one’s self-confidence. During my time abroad, I noticed three reoccurring thoughts that I had to confront time and time again:

  1. Don’t fall for the “impostor syndrome” lies. The infamous “impostor syndrome” is the feeling of not belonging in a certain space, or of being a fraud. As an exchange student, it was easy to feel an underlying sense of not belonging in my classes and at social gatherings. Do not let the seeds of doubt take root in your subconscious. Easier said than done, right? But I hope this one thought eases your mind: you’re not alone and you are enough.
  2. Don’t let FOMO get the best of you. Being away from my friends and family, it was easy to feel a wave of sadness when I would miss a gathering or celebration. The fear of missing out consumed my daily thoughts. It caused me to focus more on what was happening back home than fully being present in my time in Vancouver. Having the opportunity to study abroad is a unique experience that might be seen as once-in-a-lifetime. So, focus on the journey at hand while maintaining healthy ties to those back home.
  3. Don’t feed your loneliness. If I’m being honest, loneliness for me was one of the hardest and most unexpected battles I’ve ever had to face. I don’t think I’ve truly been homesick until this experience abroad. While it would be easy to smile and say I had the utmost, wonderful experience abroad, it was hard. I would not change what I’ve gone through for anything (honestly, not even a billion dollars). Now I have a wholehearted understanding of others who have gone through something similar. While I may not have a one-size-fits-all solution, if faced with the same internal struggle, I know with certainty that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Photo credit: Guadalupe Guadarrama.

I hope writing about my challenges will help others know that it’s okay and normal to struggle with some parts of the exchange experience.

Just remember:

  1. Let every conversation be a means to a beginning, not a means to an end.
  2. Rare opportunities allow for unique growth that may shape your outlook in life.
  3. A plan set in stone is a one with high expectations of an unattainable life.
  4. Become more self-aware and rise above the thoughts that may weigh you down.



The Corbett British Columbia-Washington International Exchange Program Fund provides an opportunity for undergraduate students at the University of Washington to spend two semesters at the University of British Columbia or University of Victoria; and for students from the University of British Columbia and University of Victoria to spend three quarters at the University of Washington.