Stepping out of your comfort zone and onto unfamiliar land: how to ease nerves and make the best of studying abroad for the first time

Maria Arevalo will be a December 2017 graduate from St. Edward’s University with a degree in Communications. She participated in the Common Book Program while studying at SEU.

I’m from a small tiny town in Texas where it’s common to get stuck behind a tractor on your way to work or school. And in that small town I lived on a small ranch where we had some goats, chickens, and fluffy dogs. That small town and that small ranch became my comfort zone. Everyone knew everyone and I became used to the comfort of always seeing a familiar face everywhere I went. I love my hometown, I really do, but there wasn’t much opportunity to step out of my comfort zone. I had big dreams, I wanted to see the world, but I couldn’t imagine stepping on land that was unfamiliar to me. My whole childhood was in that small town and on that small ranch. How in the world could I leave the safety and comfort of home?

It wasn’t easy. My freshman year in college was such a life-changing experience for me, as I’m sure it is with most teenagers leaving home for the first time. Austin, a big city compared to my humble hometown, was a culture shock in itself. No matter how nervous and scared I became sometimes, I always reminded myself that I was here for a reason: I wanted to see the world. I wanted to make my dreams come true.

My freshman year I was given the opportunity to travel to Bangladesh and Turkey. I was incredibly excited, nervous, and scared. The farthest I had ever traveled before then was to Mexico, but that was with my family. This, this was on the other side of the world with people I had never met before.

cathy group
Picture by Maria Arevalo

Here’s my first tip to those who are in the same boat right now and worried over being abroad for the first time: research. I was lucky that a class connected with my trip abroad. We learned all about the Bengali and Turkish culture. However, learning did not stop in the classroom. I spent most of my free time before departure researching and studying as much as I could. The most important thing for me was that I needed to understand these cultures that were so different from my own. I wanted to be respectful and willing to assimilate into their culture. So, I learned as much as I could before I stepped foot on the plane that would take me across the world.

Therefore, the night before I boarded my plane, I was sitting on my hotel bed practicing the few words I learned in Bengali, since Bangladesh was where we were spending most of our time, words like ‘thank you’ and ‘hello’. I was so nervous, I don’t think I slept more than four hours that night. The next morning, I woke up and remember my mom stuffing so many snacks in my suitcase. I was honestly so confused, they were a lot of snacks. When I asked my mom she said the snacks were for whenever I got hungry and needed something quick to snack on, something from home. I immediately knew what she meant. Those snacks were my pieces of comfort in a foreign place, which leads to my second piece of advice for when you’re traveling abroad for the first time.

cathy group 2
Picture by Maria Arevalo

It’s okay to bring pieces of home with you. Whether it’s pictures or your favorite snacks. Which also leads me to my third and final piece of advice: talk to people. I know, that seems so simple but when you’re in a different country for the first time, everything seems more challenging and scary. Especially if you’re an introvert like me. The night we landed in Bangladesh I knocked on my neighbor’s hotel door. A girl named Rae answered and I asked if she wouldn’t mind knocking on my door in the morning to make sure that I was up. (I’m not much of a morning person and can easily sleep through my alarm clock and sleep until noon) She immediately said yes, she’s super nice like that, and I also told her that if she ever got hungry throughout the day that I had a lot of snacks in my room. Every morning Rae would knock on my door making sure I was up and we constantly ate the snacks my mother packed for me. To this day, Rae remains one of my closest friends.

Studying abroad is scary but it is also extremely rewarding. Since traveling to Bangladesh and Turkey my freshman year, I have traveled to two more countries in the span of two years. I’ve made my dreams come true. I’ve seen beautiful places, made friends that have become family, and I’ve grown as a person. It’s okay to be nervous, but it’s also more than okay to be brave and step out of your comfort zone, beauty awaits you there.

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