While Abroad

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.

Diet

  • 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 

Environment

  • 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.

Physical Activity

  • 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.

Healthcare

  • 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.

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:

DO...

  • 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
  • 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. 

DON’T...

  • 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.

General

Withdrawal Symptoms

Aggressive Symptoms

Anxiety

Physical and/or psychological withdrawal

Compulsive eating

Homesickness

Spending excessive amounts of time reading

Compulsive drinking

Helplessness

Need for excessive amounts of sleep

Exaggerated cleanliness

Boredom

Only seeing Americans/Westerners

Irritability

Depression

Avoiding contact with host nationals

Stereotyping

Self-Doubt

Loss of ability to work/study effectively

Hostility/verbal aggressiveness

Psychosomatic Illness

Quitting & returning to your home country

Deciding to stay but permanently hating the host country/people

Source: Survival Kit for Overseas Living by L. Robert Kohls (p. 92)

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:

A chart showing psychological adjustment over time while abroad.

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.

Additional Resources

The following links are additional resources for understanding and easing culture shock: