The Office for Study Abroad cannot eliminate all risks from study abroad or control all of the daily personal decisions, choices, and activities of individual participants. Through planning and research, students can prevent or be prepared for many of the common issues they might face when studying abroad.
All GW study abroad students traveling through the Office for Study Abroad are required to complete a pre-departure orientation. As part of this orientation, students will be provided additional resources on health, safety, and risk management during study abroad.
Below is a sample of recommended health and safety tips for all students going abroad.
Below are a series of tips and recommendations for maintaining physical health while abroad. However, everyone is different and what works for one person may not be the best for someone else, so be kind to yourself as you discover what works for you.
- Remember that the diet in your host country may be different and it may take some time for you to adjust to new foods and eating patterns.
- Track how your body reacts to new foods to understand if there is anything you need to avoid.
- Food and water sanitation standards may be different than what you are used to in the US. To reduce your risk of food-borne illness, only eat food that has been fully cooked and served hot; do not eat fresh fruits and vegetables unless you can sanitize them yourself; and only drink bottled and sealed beverages, avoiding any tap water or ice.
- Stay hydrated, especially upon arrival. Jet Lag can cause health issues and dehydration. Staying hydrated is always a good way to maintain physical health
- Limit alcohol intake by drinking responsibly and legally for both health and safety considerations
- Be aware of local weather conditions. In many countries, weather can change unpredictably.
- Protect yourself against sunburn by using protective clothing and sunscreen.
- Prevent bug bites and insect-borne illnesses by using insect repellants, prophylactics, and other equipment, such as bed netting, as appropriate for your situational needs.
- Avoid interacting with wildlife. Do not pet, handle, or feed animals directly.
- Learn in advance if your destination is at increased risk for natural disasters and understand what the local guidelines are for managing these disasters if one were to occur.
- Sleep and rest are important for maintaining good mental and physical health while abroad. Be patient with yourself if you experience jet lag as you adjust to a new time zone and schedule.
- Staying active can help maintain health, happiness, and well-being, but understand that your normal exercise routines may not work in your new setting. Get to know your new environment – traffic patterns, weather, air pollution, infrastructure hazards, wildlife, unsafe areas of town, etc. – before beginning any outdoor exercise regimen.
- Use caution when swimming and during water activities. Poor sanitation, riptides, local wildlife, and other dangers could be present.
- If you plan to participate in any optional adventure activities, wear protective gear such as helmets, and make sure all gear is in safe working condition. Be aware that injuries sustained during higher risk activities may not be covered by international health insurance.
- Find ways to relieve stress – journaling, deep breathing, meditation, and yoga are all examples that may work for you, but there are many others.
- Familiarize yourself with the healthcare system and where to go if you need care. In many countries, pharmacists can act similar to doctors and recommend medications if you explain your symptoms.
- Consult your program staff if you are not feeling well and need medical assistance.
- Know where the nearest hospital or clinic is and know the emergency numbers for your host country as well as for your program.
- Review your health insurance coverage to understand what is included and excluded from your policy.
During study abroad, students experience numerous life changes at once, such as unfamiliar environments, limited access to friends and family, a new diet, communication barriers, a new schedule, and unique cultural norms. Some students may experience a sudden, unexpected event, such as the loss of luggage, an injury, or a large scale emergency. Other students may carry additional stress related to events “back home,” such as a breakup, loss of a loved one, or even the fear of missing out on their family’s or friends’ big events. Whether a student has pre-existing mental health conditions or not, these experiences can be stressful and affect the student’s time abroad.
One of the best ways to reduce the likelihood of serious mental health risk while abroad is to prepare prior to travel. Once abroad, there are also many ways students can maintain their mental health. Below are a few of the Office for Study Abroad’s top suggestions. Any student with a pre-existing mental health condition should consult with their mental health professional for a more customized mental health maintenance plan.
Build your support network early
Do not wait for a situation to become dire to seek support. Introduce yourself to your onsite program contacts and learn about the many resources available to you. For students directly enrolled in another host institution, you may find that support services are decentralized. Your local program contacts should be able to assist you in navigating the different layout of your host institution’s services.
Students can use GeoBlue or their provider’s insurance coverage, if applicable, to find a local therapist. In locations without local therapist practices or with wait times prior to appointments, or for students who are not comfortable meeting a new therapist, students can also participate in a limited number of online telehealth appointments.
A support network is not limited to program professionals, though these are the individuals who should be contacted if you believe you need assistance in managing your mental health. Your host family, new friends, and instructors are all examples of individuals who can offer different types of support. Your host family may be able to help you navigate your surroundings. Making new friends can help reduce loneliness and allow you to share your feelings about your experience with peers who may be experiencing similar things. Your professors may be able to explain different teaching expectations or direct you to available academic support.
Some cultures may view these relationships or mental health concerns differently, so it is important to learn more about your destination’s culture surrounding mental health and relationships before seeking support from authority figures, such as professors.
Incorporate your healthy coping mechanisms
Being abroad is a wonderful time to try new things, but sometimes, doing the things with which we are most familiar can help ease the stress of a new environment. Meditation, music, exercise, a warm cup of tea - consider what healthy habits and activities you would turn to at home to help with stress, and find ways to safely incorporate some of those habits and activities into your time abroad. Remember that the practices that you use in the U.S. may not be practical or safe when you are abroad, so it is important to be creative or identify ways that you can adjust these practices for your time abroad.
Establish a routine
Many students choose to study abroad because it is a chance to experience life outside of their normal routine, but without routine, every action requires new decisions and thought, which can be stressful and exhausting. Though you will need some time to adjust to your new environment, try to establish a routine early and stick to it. This does not mean you need to do the same thing every day, but establishing a general schedule and daily goals for yourself can help you stay organized and reduce stress. For instance, you may set a routine time to leave for school, but you may get there using different routes.
It can be stressful to navigate new environments or meet new people, but finding safe and less draining ways to connect and explore can help reduce the fear of the unknown and desire to isolate. Just like in DC, there are many ways to meet new friends while abroad, such as student organizations, excursions, study groups, and more.
Technology now also allows study abroad students to stay connected to your support network back home. Though checking in with friends and family can remind students that they’re still connected, too much time engaging with friends and family back home may cause students to miss out on the opportunities around them and may create homesickness.
Normalize Feeling Discomfort
It is normal to have periods when you will feel homesick, frustrated, angry, confused, embarrassed, and many other uncomfortable emotions. For many students, feeling these types of uncomfortable feelings is a sign that you are trying something new, but if you believe study abroad will be only positive moments, feeling these feelings could cause a mental health setback. Remind yourself that these feelings are normal and common among many study abroad students. You are not alone.
With that said, if you find yourself “stuck” in these uncomfortable feelings and believe they are affecting your overall well-being and ability to engage in your program, it is very important to seek help as soon as possible.
Manage your physical health
Mental health is often affected by physical health, and study abroad can tax one’s physical health. New diet, new climate, different altitude, new sleep patterns, higher levels of stress, different exercise options, different pollution levels and allergens, these are all examples of ways your study abroad environment can affect your physical health. Choosing healthy food options, getting some form of exercise, sleeping well, and not using drugs or abusing alcohol, are all basic ways to help manage physical health. See our Physical Health section above for more tips.
Journal or Track your Mood
One of the ways to deal with your emotions and stressors is to find a healthy way to express yourself. Journaling helps writers remain present while keeping perspective. When you have a lot of stress or a strong emotional response that keeps surfacing, keeping a journal can help you identify the source of the stress or any triggers. If journaling seems like too much, even tracking your moods and identifying a source for them can help you find underlying problems or stressors.
Allow yourself to rest
People often say that studying abroad is a “once in a lifetime opportunity,” and that can put a lot of pressure on students to get the most out of the experience. If you do not make time for rest, though, you may find yourself burnt out and stressed out. By allowing yourself to rest and recover, you are giving yourself an opportunity to recharge and feel at your best for your next adventure. If you’re worried that resting could mean missing out, remember: “Rest” may mean something different for everyone. Exploring your host city for a weekend instead of traveling abroad, spending a day at the beach, eating a familiar meal instead of trying something new, or going to bed early one night can all be different types of rest.
All study abroad students are advised to learn a new set of “street smarts” suitable to their new home overseas. Your program provider will conduct an orientation, but we also recommend that you spend the first few days orienting yourself in your host city. Learn about the neighborhoods, and understand which areas should be avoided. Learn about the transportation system and how to ask for directions so you can get home on your own. You may not always be able to blend in, but avoid standing out by imitating the locals in their dress and demeanor. Yes, you will still be yourself, but exercising some additional caution, you can reduce the chances of attracting unwanted attention or of becoming an easy target for theft or assault. We strongly recommend the tips listed below:
- Carry identification at all times.
- Make copies of your passport: Bring the original and at least one copy with you, leave some at home in a safe place, and scan a copy to leave in a secure place electronically.
- Register with the U.S. Consulate of your host country online before going abroad.
- Learn the local emergency numbers (embassy, fire, police, and ambulance). Keep this list in your wallet.
- Know how to use the public telephone system, and carry pocket change.
- Check to see if there are travel or health advisories for the places you plan to visit by visiting the Bureau of Consular Affairs and Centers for Disease Control websites.
- Follow the laws of your local host country - they apply to you at all times.
- Always make sure someone knows your approximate whereabouts.
- Use the buddy system – Travel in pairs or small groups
- Learn local Traffic and Pedestrian norms and patterns
- Avoid high risk activities such as skydiving and bungee jumping, or other extreme sports - in many countries, companies that offer these activities may not be required to meet rigorous safety standards or carry insurance, or individuals may offer these opportunities unofficially in order to bypass governmental regulations
- Maintain situational awareness in public and minimize distractions, where possible, such as loud headphones and cell phone use
- Stay aware of the location of your personal belongings, keep bags and pockets closed, and keep belongings in front of you as much as possible, especially in crowded areas
- Always be alert to your surroundings, including awareness of exits, overcrowding, changes in crowd demographics or temperament, suspicious packages or persons, personal belongings, and more.
- Stay on well-lit, populated streets and avoid shortcuts through alleyways or other unlit areas, especially at night.
- Limit time spent in areas with large gatherings.
- Keep abreast of political happenings in your country and of those you visit.
- Use safe and official transportation options and be prepared to show proof of ticket purchase for public transportation.
- Walk on sidewalks or designated walkways and opt for pathways that have a barrier separating traffic, if available.
- Demonstrate confidence in where you are going and what you are doing.
- Leave your bags unattended at any time in any location.
- Carry your wallet in your back pocket.
- Carry large amounts of cash or expensive items.
- Dangle purses or cameras from your wrist.
- Stay in “dives” – the few dollars saved on a cheap hotel room will not cover the replacement costs of a passport, camera, rail tickets, etc.
- Hitchhike or accept unofficial or “off the record” rides.
- Participate in any political demonstrations or protests.
- Rent motorized vehicles like vespas.
- Put yourself in unsafe or obnoxious situations for your selfies or other photos.
- Use locally insensitive terms or discuss controversial subjects with new acquaintances.
- Criticize the local culture or government on your social media. In some countries, this is illegal.
- Take pictures of any government vehicles, buildings, or personnel unless you confirm it is allowed.
- Accept drinks from strangers or leave drinks unattended.
- Use ATMs at night or in vulnerable locations, like side alleys.
- Use GPS-based apps or meet-up services that will post your locations for unknown individuals to see.
- Use any illegal substances, even if locals do so. Many countries have stricter penalties for foreigners, and there are no exceptions made for not knowing something was illegal.
The opportunity to live and study in another country is unparalleled in its adventures, benefits, and challenges. Studying abroad enables you to learn about other cultures as an active participant. This opportunity also carries with it certain responsibilities. For example, it may be necessary to adapt your behavior to the customs and expectations of the host country. This behavioral adjustment does not require you to deny your own culture, but simply to respect your host culture. Another responsibility you’ll have while studying abroad is to keep an open mind, and to learn and observe without judging.
Understanding the components of culture and the stages of cultural adjustment may help you better understand the intricacies of cultural transition and gain more significant meaning from the experience while it occurs.
Many students experience some degree of culture shock as they learn to adapt to their host culture. Culture shock refers to anxiety and feelings of surprise, disorientation, uncertainty, and confusion some people feel when transitioning to a different and unfamiliar cultural or social environment. It grows out of the difficulties in assimilating to the new culture, causing confusion in knowing what is appropriate and what is not. It is often also sparked when your pre-existing beliefs or ideals are challenged by your host culture or when you start to uncover more depth in your host culture and are surprised to find your preconceived notions or other stereotypes may not be factual representations of the host culture. This is often combined with a dislike for or even disgust (moral or aesthetic) with certain aspects of the new or different culture. While no two people deal with culture shock in the same way, there are common reactions shared by many. The following are common symptoms of culture shock.
Physical and/or psychological withdrawal
Spending excessive amounts of time reading
Need for excessive amounts of sleep
Only seeing Americans/Westerners
Avoiding contact with host nationals
Loss of ability to work/study effectively
Quitting & returning to your home country
Deciding to stay but permanently hating the host country/people
The W-Curve below is commonly used to show the process of culture shock and can help students understand what they can expect to go through during their time abroad and when they return home:
Prescriptions for Culture Shock
- Understand symptoms and recognize signs of culture shock.
- Acknowledge that culture shock is normal.
- Understand it is a passing phase.
- Gather information before you go abroad so you are better prepared for a cultural change.
- Create a support network of host nationals, expatriates, work groups, or within your school setting.
- Create a routine for yourself.
- Traveling within or around your host country can take your mind off of culture shock.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself.
- If symptoms persist or worsen, notify your program and consider additional treatment and support options.
The following links are additional resources for understanding and easing culture shock:
Office for Study Abroad
University Student Center
800 21st Street NW
Washington, DC 20052