An Introvert’s Guide to Studying Abroad

Studying abroad may seem an odd choice for an introverted person. Trips such as these are often perceived as involving meeting new people and trying new things, which are generally thought of as extroverted activities.

Is studying abroad actually like this? Why is this the view we have? And what can introverts do to mitigate some of the difficulties they may find in studying in a different country?

The Advertiser’s Secret

It’s an unfortunate truth that in this world we live in, the dominant narrative is defined by the loudest, the most insistent, regardless of the truth of the situation. We all believe that facts win out over emotion, but that is not always the case.

There is no louder force in our society, perhaps outside of a few modern politicians, than advertising.

Much of the marketing one sees encouraging students to study abroad invokes a bold and outgoing personality.

Advertisements for international education, including the literature universities provide for students, heavily imply that the student who chooses to study abroad will be adventurous, talkative and engaging; an individual that is happy here, there or anywhere, regardless of language, culture or personal inhibition.

In fairness, virtually any advertisement for any product or experience is built this way. People generally like to think of themselves as good company, as adventurous or as culturally literate, which makes the advertisement appropriate for them. Or if someone does not think of themselves that way, then the advert works by implying that this thing will ‘fix’ them.

“If you are outgoing, then this thing is perfect for you!”, the advert suggests.

“Or if you are not, then by getting this thing, you can be more outgoing!”, the advert implies.

There is a reason that 99% of people in advertisements are attractive- they are used to inspire the viewer to be more like them in some way, by buying this toothpaste, or that car, or whatever it happens to be.

But the reality is that not everyone is extroverted. Between 16% and 50% of people (depending on how the question is asked) identify as introverted, whose traits are generally in direct opposition to those that are suggested to be required for an education abroad. Introverts, generally speaking, would prefer to be at home, only speak to those that are familiar to them (if anyone) and focus on improvement starting with the self, rather than looking to the outside world for help.

This would suggest that all who travel for study are extroverted and that a huge percentage of the population aren’t suited to studying abroad, when of course that is not the case at all.

So what do those people do? Not study abroad? Just put up with it? Or can studying abroad simply be just as enjoyable for an introvert as it is suggested for an extrovert?

People are Complex

The straightforward answer to this conundrum would be to say that the vast majority of people are not simply one thing or another, that no one, if anyone, can be so simply categorized. Those who may identify more as introverted are perfectly capable of being loud or aggressive, while extroverts will also sometimes be quiet and passive and thoughtful.

Perhaps a person thinks of himself or herself as introverted, because they get a little shy in big crowds, but they are happy to meet new people and enjoy being at parties and the like. This person wouldn’t qualify as truly introverted, as shyness is more of a fear of negative judgement, while introversion is more a preference for quiet and solitude.

It should be noted though that the majority of students that travel abroad tend to identify as more extroverted. Whether they would be entirely accurate in their understanding of themselves would make an interesting study, but all the same it is suggestive of at least how the type of person that travels sees themselves. This may be the consequence of how studying abroad is presented, or it may be that those who travel are eager to become more extroverted, or at least enjoy the benefits that are occasionally associated with extroversion.

However, there is a thriving community of websites and guides online for introverts that wish to study abroad. If you don’t believe me, just do a Google search for ‘Introvert guide study abroad’. There are hundreds of thousands of responses. Even this article could be said to fall into this category (just look at the title if for some reason you haven’t already).

The reasons for these pages existing are simple and alluded to above. Studying abroad is generally presented to us as a thing for extroverts. If you’re not one of those people, here’s some help, they say.

These sites and blogs are generally well meaning and encouraging. Studying abroad can be very imposing for someone not used to venturing out too often.

There are a few things these articles tend to commonly return to. Let’s take a look at them here:

  • Being Around Lots of People is Energy Draining

For introverts, it can be tiring being around people. Feeling self-conscious, worrying about what to say, what your body language says or trying to figure out how someone else feels about the current situation can all be fairly exhausting activities. More so if they are all happening at the same time. What a relief it is then to go home, be alone, and not have to worry about any of that. Some may not see the logic in it, but solitude can be more enjoyable than spending time with others.

How to marry this idea to studying abroad though? The popular idea is that you will have to spend a lot of your time abroad speaking to and connecting with people, maybe even in a different language, and of course, some of that will have to happen at some point. What you may find though is learning a new language, or improving an old one can allow you to act a little differently. Language is a very powerful tool and developing a new language almost allows you access to a second personality. Whether that’s something you’d want though is a different question.

Instead what you may find is that by not knowing another language, there’s less time to worry about extraneous things surrounding conversation- you literally just have to concentrate on the meaning. And in any case, people are always going to be more patient with you if you’re speaking a different language so you should be easy on yourself.

If you are speaking your own language in a different country, or even if not for that matter, then if it gets too much you always have the freedom to just leave, go and explore somewhere by yourself for a little while. If you’re in the city, go and visit a museum for a little while, or go see a film you’ve wanted to see. If you’re in the country, go for a walk in the woods, or walk along the coast. Travel is about unique and new experiences more than anything else- they don’t necessarily have to be with anyone else.

  • A Few Good Friends

Extroverts are the type to have thousands of friends or followers on Facebook or Instagram. The know everyone, seemingly, but the number of really true friends they may have actually isn’t all that high. Turns out it is difficult to be friends with everyone while maintaining a good social core. Introverts, again typically, tend to be the opposite. There will be few people they’d define as being their ‘friend’, but the few that they do will be long-term and completely trusted.

This can become a challenge when studying abroad as inevitably you will have to make new friends at some point, while potentially leaving your old friends behind for a while.

Well let’s correct that second point first: leaving for a country for a short while does not mean you will be leaving your old friends behind for good. That may seem obvious to some, but it’s important to remember. Of course, there are a myriad of methods for contacting people these days, but good friends that haven’t spoken to each other for months, or even years will find that they still remain close, even after all of that time away.

As for making new friends, there are a few good things to remember. For one, quite a few others who study abroad will be extroverted, and they’ll do a lot of the hard conversational work for you. You might not become best friends for life, but at least that’s someone you can contact when you’re in need. Just remember that you may have to do the same for them at some point. That’s what being a good friend is all about.

Also, if you’re studying abroad, there’s something you probably like culturally about that place. So seek out those who are also interested in such things, whether in a club or society, and you already have a base of people to talk to about something you are interested in. Even if you don’t hit it off after that, at least there’s another person you can talk to about something.

If you can, find any other people who are travelling to that city/university ahead of time, on Facebook or something. It can be way easier sometimes to talk online than face-to-face, and might make you feel a bit more comfortable when first arriving.

There are also a few general ideas for introverts when meeting up with people that exist outside of travelling abroad.

         i.            Make plans ahead of time. That way you may feel like you have to go. You might not want to, but hey, life is about sacrifice sometimes.

       ii.            Get to places early. It will make you far more settled when other people arrive, instead of having to walk into a big group of people and introduce yourself.

     iii.            And most of all: try. People like effort and you’ll get better if you just try. It can be painful at first, but at least you can reward yourself with some alone time afterward.

  • Being Alone in a New Place

As mentioned above, exploring a new place by yourself is a good way to unwind and make the most of your time abroad. For some reason, certain activities are regarded as somehow being ‘wrong’ if they’re not enjoyed with other people, and don’t get us wrong, lots of these things can potentially be better with good company, but they can also be enjoyed by yourself just as much too.

Holidays alone are sometimes regarded as odd, but they can be incredibly liberating. You get the freedom to what you want, when you want, you don’t have to speak to anyone and you have no responsibility to anyone for a little while. Use this mentality on your study abroad trip. If you move to a big new city, just walk around. Go to a cool restaurant by yourself, sit in a busy square and watch all of the people or visit a museum or do something touristy. You don’t even necessarily have to tell anyone if you don’t want. It can be incredibly fun having this second secret life that you lead.

Or if that is still too much, go for a quiet walk someplace, find a quiet coffee shop where you can sit in the corner, or do that old dependable: study. Go to the library, or sit at home or find some quiet nook where you can sit and work and think. It’s the ultimate reason you are there after all.

  • Ideas First, Talking Later

As a thoughtful person, you should make the most of your ability when studying abroad. Make notes, draw pictures, write something, keep a diary. At times you will probably feel isolated. It happens. It happens to the best of us. A good way to get through those times is to express yourself somehow, whichever way you enjoy the most.

The process of thinking and considering and creating is incredibly valuable for improving who you are as a person, so don’t feel like you have to change your personality in order to improve. Both travel and education are two things that can alter a person for the better, and spending time thinking when you’re studying abroad will only improve that process.

If a louder person were to study abroad, they would change, of course, but the change is never going to be as pronounced as a quiet person who does it. The difficult part is noticing when it is happening, as it is always so difficult to notice changes in yourself. But by surrounding yourself with new things, trying to understand new ideas or languages, by exploring and, yes, by speaking to some people who you never would have spoken to otherwise, you will slowly transform. Confidence may increase, you may find yourself more comfortable generally, or you may be more eager to try new things.

None of this is to say that the new you will be someone loud or completely outgoing, if that’s something you wouldn’t want of yourself. You can still be introverted and improve your happiness by trying out things from time to time. Life is about balance really, as you may have heard, and it can sometimes be necessary to open yourself up to new things from time to time.

No one is just going to come along and do everything they can to help you out or make you happy. You kind of have to do it yourself. So it can be best to realise that moving out of your comfort zone can be good. Do it as often as you feel is necessary, once a day, once a week, once a month and do something you never would have expected of yourself. You may hate it while it is happening, but if nothing else, the relief you feel once it is done can be immense, and that feeling is worth all of the terrible stuff beforehand, honestly.

The Root of the Problem

The previous four sections are at least this writer’s interpretation of the wealth of websites and blog pieces that exist for introverts and I believe that there is a lot of good advice and wisdom there. But it is my feeling that none of these pieces really tackle the heart of the issue, and are in fact symptomatic of it in a way.

An introvert’s guide for studying abroad would imply that an introvert needs a guide, that an introvert needs help to do travel and educate themselves, which couldn’t be further from the truth (and yes, we see the irony that this very article is a guide for introverts).

If you subscribe to the marketed idea that studying abroad is all about meeting new people, then you will likely be disappointed by your experience.

Yes, inevitably you will meet new people as part of your journey, but it is by no means a requirement to have a successful study abroad trip. Ideally, you will make a couple of friends here or there but introversion has nothing to do with making friends and really, studying abroad isn’t either.

An international education is about the memories you forge for yourself, the academics you teach yourself and the general self-improvement you find for yourself. Each of these things are self-driven and are far more likely to be successfully completed by an introvert than an extrovert.

Which is not to say that someone who studies abroad shouldn’t try and make new friends or try new things. Of course, everyone should. But travel and education are inherently introverted activities.

For some reason, we associate both travel and education with being part of a group, that we need to be loud and outgoing to be successful at either. But it is guaranteed that the cleverest people in your class are generally the quietest and are also the ones who will enjoy travel the most, especially if it’s by themselves.

The truth of the matter is found in that comparison between introversion and shyness: “shyness is more of a fear of negative judgement, while introversion is more a preference for quiet and solitude.”

Some will certainly feel this introversion a lot more strongly than others and those are the people who will find the most to gain from an international education.

By visiting a country where perhaps you cannot speak to anyone, where you have committed yourself to hours a week of quiet reading and writing; this is the true study abroad experience and what a joy it has the potential of being, for even the most silent and reserved of us.