In this day and age where social media runs our lives (anyone seen “Black Mirror”?), we often fall into the trap of believing that people’s lives are just one big Instagram feed of happy events, devoid of any challenges or hardships. The effects of this misconception can be detrimental, in terms of mental health and quality of life experiences.
So to me, the illusion that study abroad is one big incredible adventure where everything is new and exciting all the time—an image reinforced by its social media presence amongst our peers—is really troubling. While study abroad is in fact incredible, it’s not necessarily for the reasons social media would make it out to be. Now at the end of my semester in Buenos Aires, these are three stark differences I’ve noticed between study abroad on an Instagram feed and study abroad real-time:

Misconception #1: Studying abroad is like a vacation, but with your friends

False! No matter how many photos Joey posts of feeding elephants or Carmen posts from her tropical hikes or Alex posts of the Eiffel Tower, a study abroad student’s life does not resemble that of a tourist’s in almost any facet, down to the role you play and the purpose you have in your host country.

Dinner table set with host mom

Dinner with my host mom!

For starters, your vacation time is yours—you get to decide how to spend it and you have no obligations other than enjoying yourself. As a study abroad student, however, you have classes to account for, and assignments for those classes. Much of your time is also consumed by trying to adapt. Figuring out how to find your new normal and get comfortable with it takes time both mentally and physically. This is a step that as a tourist, you get to bypass.
Living with a host family also presents the unique challenge of adapting not only to another national culture, but another family culture with its own rules, hierarchies, expectations, and most of all: food. Dietary changes can be especially difficult as they can affect your health at first. However over time, your body will adjust and you’ll figure out tricks for eating well within the new selection of food at your disposal. If nothing else, the challenge will give you perspective!

Misconception #2: You always have to be doing something cool when you’re studying abroad

False again! You may be in a foreign country, but you’re still a student and you’re still human, so you’ll still want time to breathe and relax between the constant culture shock, responsibilities, and activities.

Host cat and I while doing homework on laptop

Me and my host cat doing homework!

In fact, in living with a host family, I’ve actually spent more time alone on this semester abroad than I do in college, and a lot of my peers have said the same thing. This in itself presents a challenge because, despite the amount of education we have received throughout our lives, understanding how to be with yourself and your thoughts is often neglected. But alone time isn’t bad—in fact, it’s important! Self-discovery comes from reflection, and the more you get to know yourself, the more you might realize how strong you really are.
On a similar note, there’s a common mindset people attach to the idea of study abroad: “making the most of it.” However, people often misconstrue this saying to mean “spending every waking moment doing something unique and awesome”—but that’s not realistic, nor is it healthy. Rather, I interpret it to mean making a conscious effort to keep an open mind and to jump at opportunities that might normally be outside of my comfort zone, which is much more manageable.
With all that being said, if you don’t do anything Insta-worthy for two weeks, but you made some great friends and had some great laughs or insightful discussions, I’d say that’s two weeks well spent.

Misconception #3: Changing my surroundings by going somewhere new and different will transform me immediately

You’ve got it—not true! Change always comes from within.
I know I was not alone in thinking that coming to Buenos Aires would change me into an energetic person who wakes up every day excited to go out and take on the world—because that’s what you do when you’re in a foreign country for five months, right?
I had this image that I would suddenly stop being the studious, fairly reclusive person I am because the city itself would entice me to go out and explore. But shocker: that’s not what happened.
Backpacking near waterfallsWhat has happened instead is that I have made progress over time in my abilities to both prioritize and understand myself. And immersion in the culture certainly has changed me, but that change has not been passive nor was it immediate. Changing my surroundings has surfaced a range of emotions—from discomfort, to relish, to confusion, to acceptance.
But my personal growth due to this change has come from reflection and dialogue, and analyzing my discomfort when confronted with some new custom or perspective. So I have undergone some form of transformation over the course of the semester, but that change has come from me, rather than from coming here.
So, why study abroad if it’s not the incredible journey everyone makes it look like it is?
Because it is an incredible journey—but in a much deeper, much more personal way than your friends’ social media make it out to be. People don’t like to be vulnerable, so we sugarcoat our experiences and write off study abroad as “the time of my life” without specifying, “but I had to work the whole time to make it that way.”
If I’ve learned anything from my five months abroad, it’s that I’m stronger than I ever thought, the customs I depend on can be replaced, and that I am not alone in my hardships—and if a few good Instas come out of it, I’m not complaining.