Well-being Abroad

An experience abroad can be an immensely rewarding academic, personal and professional experience. It is a chance to explore the world, learn about a new culture, push your boundaries and grow as a person. Being abroad, away from regular support networks, can also provide challenges. The cultural adjustment process requires flexibility in the face of different customs, beliefs, and living conditions. These new situations may trigger “culture shock”, marked by symptoms such as sad mood, anxious thoughts, homesickness, and difficulties eating and sleeping, to name a few. The information below should help you begin to think about how you can keep yourself well while abroad. You should be proactive and well informed about your own well-being; but, we are here to help so ask us how!

Please note that the text below focuses on reflective questions to ensure well-being abroad. For more technical information about health abroad, please visit the Center for Undergraduate Global Engagement website’s Health and Safety section, CU Travel Health, CU Health Insurance, Columbia Global Travel and other resources like the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Where to start?

Making informed decisions about your time abroad is an essential part of ensuring a successful experience. Every abroad experience is different – you may be traveling abroad to take classes, to conduct research or to volunteer in a local community – but the challenges in adapting to a new environment can be similar. For for-credit study abroad experiences, please also consult Choosing a Study Abroad Program. Below are some basic questions to ask yourself to help find the right experience for you:

  • How will I feel going abroad? How will I feel coming back? What am I worried about in terms of my experience?
  • Whose advice might be helpful to me in making a decision?
  • How long will my experience be?
  • Will I be traveling in a group or by myself?
  • How will my daily living experience affect my health and well-being?
  • Does the opportunity abroad have onsite staff who can help me navigate the local environment, including health resources?
  • What type of housing will be available to me while abroad?
  • Does the opportunity provide structured activities? Or am I expected to plan things for myself?
  • How will I afford my experience abroad? If considering a for-credit study abroad experience, have I reviewed the financial considerations?

Culture Shock

Part of adjusting to living overseas usually includes experiencing some culture shock which is a disorientation that occurs from living within a new culture. This disorientation or confusion is caused by a lack of familiarity with patterns and meanings that you take for granted in your own culture. You may feel that you are trying to operate in a world without knowing all of the rules. Feelings of frustration may occur because the situation is ambiguous or doesn’t match your expectations. However, gradually you learn to adapt and create a new life within this new environment for yourself.

Experiencing culture shock to some degree is a normal and not unlike any other transition in your life, such as leaving home for college. Expect there to be some bumps in the road. Take the initiative and learn as much as you can about your host country. It can help to ease the transition to manage expectations.

It may be surprising to hear that students often experience reverse culture shock upon their return home. The familiar is no longer familiar. You’ve changed as a result of your overseas experience and you’ll be viewing everything and everyone through a different lens. The stages of reverse culture shock are similar to those of culture shock.

As described above, culture shock is normal and expected. If you are feeling that what you may be experience is more than described above, do not hesitate to get in touch with a medical professional to help source additional resources.

More information on the stages of cultural adjustment can be found on the Cultural Awareness page of our website.

Do I need academic support while abroad?

If you have chosen to pursue an academic experience abroad, it is important to think ahead about any support you may need. You will be in a new learning environment, one where you may not know the entire context of the academic culture. Many students utilize academic support services abroad, regardless if they ever used them in the United States. Some potential questions to ask yourself:

  • What type of student am I? Do I struggle with exams or group work? Do I struggle with time management?
  • What is the academic culture of my experience? How does it compare to higher education in the United States?
  • What type of academic assessment does my program offer? What am I expected to produce, academically?
  • Do I get more stressed during exam time? What is exam culture like on the program I am attending?
  • How can I prepare for meeting academic expectations before going abroad?
  • Have I spoken with my Columbia academic adviser about how my experience abroad will affect my graduation plan? If studying abroad, have I reviewed information about credit from abroad?
  • What study skills do I employ at home and will I be able to use them in the same way abroad? (i.e. if you like to study in a quiet library, will there be one where you are going abroad?)
  • What kind of academic support does my program offer? Does it offer tutoring or exam preparation?
  • If doing independent research, do I know how to pace the gathering of information? How do I set myself up to meet both internal and external deadlines?

Resources:

What community will I have while abroad?

Part of a successful experience abroad can include setting up a community of support for yourself. Many students find that connecting with individuals who share interests and/or identities can be a source of support during a transition abroad. Guidance about navigating your identity abroad can be found on our Identity and Diversity page, including resources about race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and spirituality.

If you are interested in finding community abroad, questions to ask include:

  • How will I build a community abroad? How will I stay connected to support networks I have at home?
  • Can I stay in regular contact with loved ones and friends at home? Have I communicated to my loved ones how often and via what channels I can be in touch?
  • Are there identity or activity groups I can connect with where I am going?
  • What opportunities exist for meeting local people? Is it important to me that I interact with a local community?

Resources:

Do I need mental health support while abroad?

Cultural views on mental health vary greatly around the world, as do the types of resources that are available. Some countries have a broad range of services, including access to Western-trained providers, while others have more limited options. In addition to consulting any medical providers, it is important that you prepare for a positive abroad experience by developing a set of healthy coping strategies that you can utilize while abroad. When preparing for an experience abroad, things to ask yourself include:

  • What triggers feelings of anxiety or depression for me? What are symptoms of anxiety and depression for me? If I encounter these triggers or symptoms abroad, do I have a plan to seek medical care?
  • What are traditional beauty standards in my anticipated country and culture? How might this affect my body image?
  • Do I like to journal in order to process stressful experiences? Do I need to bring things to help me be physically active? Do I like to listen to music with headphones? Will I be able to do this where I am going?
  • What is important to me in order to sleep? Should I bring a sleep mask or earplugs in case my sleeping situation is different than what I’m used to?
  • Have I considered a plan for being equipped to use coping strategies that work for me? Can I continue using those coping strategies in my abroad environment?
  • If I currently seek ongoing mental health support with therapy sessions, have I talked to my provider about if it is advisable to continue while abroad? If so can I continue with my current provider or will I need to find a therapist onsite? What resources exist for me finding someone onsite?
  • Do I have a self-care plan?
  • If I am on medication, can I arrange with my doctor and the insurance company to bring enough medication? If I can’t, how will I get a new supply of medication? Have I checked with ISOS about referrals and availability of medication abroad?
  • Is there anything that my program can do to assist supporting my mental health (think about how your condition might be affected by academics, living situation, class schedule, etc.)?
  • Do I have support networks in country for substance abuse that I would like to continue abroad, like Alcohol Anonymous meetings?

Resources:

How will being abroad affect my physical health?

Prior to an abroad experience, it is important for you to think about how your physical health may be impacted by your new environment. Questions to ask yourself include:

  • Do I know my medical history and can I explain any conditions to new providers?
  • Do I require regular or ongoing care for a chronic condition and am I able to address this while abroad?
  • Do I have a self-care plan?
  • What environmental factors should I consider as they relate to my physical health? What are sanitation standards in my new environment? Does my location have a public transport system and how do I use it? What are customs on crossing the street? Could there be environmental allergens where I am going?
  • Do I have any allergies or sensitivities, and do I know how to communicate this in the primary language of where I am going?
  • If I have medical dietary restrictions, does my local country offer cuisine that I can eat?
  • How can I maintain healthy eating and nutrition while abroad? Do I have access to clean water? Can I access dining halls or grocery stores? Do I need to learn how to cook for myself?
  • How can I stay fit while abroad? Will I have access to a fitness or recreation center? Are there safe areas where I can walk or run?
  • Have you obtained all necessary immunizations prior to departure?
  • If I am on medication, can I arrange with my doctor and the insurance company to bring enough medication? If I can’t, how will I get a new supply of medication? Have I checked with ISOS about referrals and availability of medication abroad?
  • What is important to me in order to sleep? Should I bring a sleep mask or earplugs in case my sleeping situation is different than what I’m used to?

Resources:

What if i have a documented disability?

The Center for Undergraduate Global Engagement (UGE) endeavors to assist in providing reasonable accommodations for students with documented disabilities. Know that your exact accommodations may not be available abroad. However, UGE and your program will work with you to access the best available information. It is helpful if you notify us and your program as early as possible in the process. This allows for advanced planning by the appropriate offices to potentially implement any accommodations. If you are registered with the Office of Disability Services (ODS), we recommend following up with the ODS to obtain a letter outlining necessary accommodations that you can forward to your program. Questions to consider and speak with your Center for Undergraduate Global Engagement adviser about include:

  • What accommodations may be available abroad?
  • What program resources exist for students with disabilities?
  • How might mobility limitations affect day to day life in your host country? What accessibility measures exist?
  • How will a change of environment effect your physical and mental health and wellness?
  • How will you continue to commute with doctors, psychiatrists, therapists, etc. while abroad, if needed?

Resources:

How can I maintain sexual and reproductive health while abroad?

Preparing for your time away also may include planning for how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. You should think about how your access to prevention, including birth control, condoms and emergency contraception may be different than in the United States. Questions to ask yourself include:

  • If I’m planning to be sexually active while abroad, what safer sex methods can I use to reduce risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection?
  • If I am taking prescription-only birth control medication, can I get enough to supply my time abroad? If not, how will I get a new supply? Have I checked with ISOS about referrals and availability of medication abroad?
  • Should I plan to get tested for sexually transmitted infections, prior to departure? What resources, if any, exist for me to get tested while abroad?
  • If I take pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medication, will I be able to access this while abroad?
  • If I am pursuing hormone therapy for gender affirmation, will I have access to hormones while abroad?

Resources:

Sexual Violence Response

Columbia University, Barnard College, and Teachers College are committed to fostering an environment that is free from gender-based discrimination and harassment, including sexual assault and all other forms of gender-based misconduct. The University recognizes its responsibility to increase awareness of such misconduct, prevent its occurrence, support survivors, deal fairly and firmly with offenders, and diligently investigate reports of misconduct.

The University encourages all students affected by gender-based misconduct to seek immediate assistance, including students abroad. Seeking assistance promptly may be important to ensure a student’s physical safety or to obtain medical care or other support. It may also be necessary to preserve evidence, which can assist the University and/or law enforcement in responding effectively. Assistance is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. A list of confidential and non-confidential resources is included on the University’s Sexual Respect website: http://sexualrespect.columbia.edu/i-need-help-where-do-i-go.