Studying Abroad and My Mental Health

I explain the mental challenges that I went through during my year abroad.

By Miranda Kuyk

The thing no one tells you when you go abroad is how much you have to adapt. Not economically or culturally, but as a person.

In August 2019 I began my exchange year at the University of Amsterdam. Filled with expectation and excitement, I set off for what I thought would be the start of something amazing. However, when I reached Amsterdam, things were not as everyone claimed they would be. 

I was one of first students to arrive at my accommodation, and while the others had come with friends or family, I felt alone and isolated immediately, having chosen to travel alone. That first weekend was one of the toughest parts of my exchange so far. I didn’t know the city, I didn’t know the people in my flat, half of whom would be arriving on the Monday, I didn’t even know how to get to my campus.

I began to think the worst. Had I made a mistake? Was this too much of a challenge? I felt helpless, as though I’d failed before I had even begun. But, after a few teary phone calls to family members and Skype calls with friends I was ready to try again.

A few weeks passed and I felt a lot better; my flatmates had all arrived, I had taken part in the university’s equivalent of Fresher’s Week and met some great people who I am still friends with five months later- and I’d worked out my route to uni.

However, I still felt at a loose end. Having left a close circle of friends in Edinburgh, I felt out of place in Amsterdam. While I saw friend groups form around me, I felt I didn’t know anyone well enough yet. I remember sitting alone for dinner, deflated and tired, feeling doubtful once again. 

But I managed to force myself to be sociable, to ask if I could join in. I realised I had to start saying yes to everything (well, almost everything) if I wanted to make connections in Amsterdam. This meant that I would stay for that extra drink, or I would go to the museum with people I’d just met.

Being quite a social person I didn’t anticipate how hard it would be to make friends. Social media had given me an image of the perfect fairytale Erasmus year and I began to realise it was just that, a fairytale.

Despite what Instagram tells you, not everyone is travelling every week or eating out and partying all the time. Everyone’s just a normal student. It took me a long time to realise that it was okay to have a bad day, or feel homesick, or to not become close with people immediately. Now after only one semester I have a tight group of friends who I feel like I’ve known for much longer. Having struggled through the first couple of months of my exchange, I am now happy and settled and ‘living the dream’ that everyone promised I would. 

I’ve decided to share my experience not to garner sympathy, but to hopefully be able to support those going through the same things. It’s impossible not to let your expectations get the better of you when preparing to take a year abroad, but keeping things in perspective is important.

Not everyone is going to have the same, ‘once in a lifetime’ style experience, but that’s okay. 

My advice to students going abroad, and even those already on exchange is to talk about what you’re going through. Even if you feel ashamed crying to your mum down the phone, it really does help. It’s one of the main things that got me through my hardest times, knowing that I had a supportive family and network of friends I could reach out to if I needed them. Reaching out and admitting you’re not quite having the time of your life does not make you weak, it makes you normal.

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I explain the mental challenges that I went through during my year abroad.