Focus on the bright spots. In any place you go, you might initially find that you hate a lot about the place you’re in. The food is weird! There are crazy drivers! Step back and reframe. Although there might be some not-so-great things, there must be something good, however big or small, about your new environment. E.g., I really don’t like the mushy eggplant and flavorless maize mash that I often have to eat, but I can’t wait to have cabbage again! No one speaks English or understands what I’m saying, but what an opportunity for complete language immersion!
Connect with the community. It’s easy to go to a country and stay in a comfort bubble, but it’s not the best way to engage yourself in the local culture. Connecting with the community can be as simple as learning how to cook a local dish, attending a neighborhood church, or bargaining for fruit at the market. Learn how things are done locally, and try to assimilate. Remember that you are a guest in the country, so although you may look and think differently, you should be making the effort to learn the culture and adapt to your surroundings rather than having others adapt to your foreignness.
Continue hobbies from home. Something that can help with homesickness is to find an activity that you can take with you anywhere. While everything around you is changing, you are the same person wherever you go. Think portable. Cameras, sketchbooks, e-readers, journals. Personally, I like to read and run, and I can do both pretty much anywhere with just my kindle and running shoes. I even had the opportunity to participate in a triathlon while I was here, which was an incredible experience!
Embrace the unfamiliar. Of course things are different, but it just means there’s more to learn. Take the opportunity to learn a new language, make new friends, and discover cultural attitudes. You’re surrounded by a whole new world for a few months, so take your time to discover and appreciate as much as you can. Get excited about the fact that you might get lost in a crazy new city. Don’t be afraid to try strange foreign food that doesn’t sound very appealing. Stimulate your sense of adventure.
Create experiences with new friends. Travel around your new country! Go to a concert! Climb a mountain! Most things are more fun in a group – it can relieve stress, create bonding moments, and allow you to reflect upon your journey along the way. So be open to doing some crazy things when you’re with friends that you normally wouldn’t do by yourself. If you happen to be in Uganda, go white-water rafting on the Nile, climb Sipi Falls, and run the MTN marathon!
Maintain communication lines. When you’re going international, as much as you embrace your new life, you shouldn’t forget your old one. Co-ops are only six months long, and you don’t want to return realizing that you lost contact with all your friends from school and have to redo your freshman year socializing. Most places you go should have some Internet connection, whether it is luxurious WiFi or portable modem, so there isn’t much of an excuse to not contact friends and family. There are a number of smartphone apps that allow you to text or call internationally without crazy fees, including WeChat, WhatsApp, GroupMe, and Google Hangouts, just to name a few.
Record your experiences. Keep a blog, take a photo a day, or start a collection. An international co-op should be something you remember for the rest of your life, so make sure you have something to remember and show from your time abroad. For the past few weeks, I’ve been sending my father a photo a day of whatever I happen to experience over the day. By the end of the six months, I’m sure it will make an interesting slideshow: a mishmash of scenery, food, city, work, and people, that I can keep to reminisce about my amazing experience.
Mika White is a second year biochemistry major at Northeastern expecting to graduate in 2018. This semester she’s on her first co-op in Uganda interning at a rural hospital in the town of Entebbe. Mika loves to travel, read, and run. Feel free to reach out to her at email@example.com and check out her personal blog for more a more detailed account of her experiences.