Life is truly unpredictable. You never know what’s going to happen, when it’ll happen, or where you’ll end up. In some cases, this means being granted some of the best blessings in life; exploring countries you never thought you’d ever see. In other cases, this means dealing with hardships that derail you from everything you had planned; serious illnesses and grief and trauma amid pre-existing mental health conditions, all while in a new environment. Studying abroad so far has given me both. As difficult as these hardships have been for me, within them are some of the most precious lessons I could’ve received while being here. Let me take you through my journey of swimming in troubled waters and how I’ve learned to survive.
I fell incredibly ill in mid-August, quite literally rendering me bedridden. With weeks of never getting better, a plethora of all sorts of medicine to no avail, and multiple doctors’ appointments with no conclusive answers, my frustration was endless and only growing stronger — until a series of blood tests finally gave me the answers I needed… but not quite wanted. I had contracted mono (aka glandular fever) within my first week of abroad. There is no direct treatment, and it leaves the body fatigued for months.
Being sick while traveling is never fun. But, to have a disease as severe as mono for an entire semester while overseas puts a serious damper on abroad. As someone who has been trying to make the most out of her time here, mono has prevented me from a lot of experiences that I was really looking forward to. These included footy games, weekly rock climbing, fun nights out with friends, and a winery tour at the Yarra Valley. There’s so much I want to do, yet can’t, because my body wouldn’t allow for it!
My home institution very adamantly communicated to us that study abroad is not an escape from any of your problems back home. They will simply follow you wherever you go. This has resonated with me so acutely since being here.
Experiencing unexpected trauma in the months right before abroad, combined with a long history of depression and anxiety and contracting mono right at the start of abroad, has led to days of endless anxiety attacks; nights of crying alone for hours; and the constant state of feeling unsettled, even though I absolutely love being here. I have found myself so many times unable to enjoy something to the fullest because I’m simply too tired or sad. This upsets me even more because enjoying myself while abroad is exactly what I want. Being frustrated at oneself for struggling with mental health is an incredibly vicious cycle; one that I’ve been forced to deal with during my time here.
When life throws obstacles your way, we must learn to adapt and overcome. I still try to make the most out of the few months I have overseas before returning home. Here’s some of the steps I’ve taken to ease the process:
Take it easy:
If you have the energy, do activities that are not super physically taxing, such as trying new cafés, taking walks, checking out museums, and spending time with friends with a movie or homecooked meal. You might not get around to all the exciting things you were hoping to do, but as I’ve said before, there is no one way of studying abroad. I also can’t stress enough how important it is to sleep, whether it’s in bed or on a bus. I’ve had countless days where I couldn’t get out of bed until 3pm and sometimes, that’s just what your body needs. It can be frustrating because it feels like a waste of a day. But the truth is, anything you do to take care of yourself is never a waste of time.
Connecting with community abroad:
During my time here, I’ve grown closer to a wonderful cohort of other abroad students. For the longest time, I feared reaching out to them in hard times, worried that I would scare people away. However, after finally deciding to open up to them about my problems, I was met only with compassion, acceptance, and warmth. I’m still in touch with people back home, but it’s comforting knowing that I have a support system here, too.
Working with mental health services:
IFSA promotes multiple avenues of mental health support and encourages students to use these resources as much as possible. The University of Melbourne provides free counseling sessions and the program has helped me connect with other resources outside the university. I also have a lovely student services coordinator who I always feel comfortable with talking to when things get tough. IFSA prioritizes your well-being because they want you to prioritize it, too.
Be kind to yourself. Patience, acceptance, and understanding are key to getting through these kinds of obstacles during study abroad. Falling ill and not being able to do everything I want isn’t my fault. Despite how painful it is to deal with depression, anxiety, and trauma, I’ve truly learned that mental illness does not make you a bad person. Your abroad experience isn’t going to feel perfect and it’s not supposed to. Instead, it has taught me that any moment here can be a transformative one as long as you want it to be. It’s hard, believe me—but with friends by your side; an institution rallying behind you; and yourself as a beacon of strength and resiliency; you will find your way through and emerge victorious through stormy waters.
Samantha Tran is a Moral Psychology (SPM) major and Russian Studies minor at Franklin & Marshall College and studied abroad with IFSA at the University of Melbourne in Australia in Fall 2019. She is a First-Generation Scholar for IFSA through the First-Generation College Student Scholarship program.