Studying Abroad with Anxiety

Leah Ward is a graphic design student at JWU Providence. She studied abroad in Italy during spring 2022.

Being away from your primary support system can be scary, especially if you have anxiety. This fear can make people shy away from trying new things because of things that might happen. From my experience, I know what that fear feels like and know how debilitating it can be. But if you’ve ever had even a little part of you that wants to explore despite that insistent fear, you came to the right place. 

Leaving My Comfort Zone 

Studying abroad was a big leap to me as someone who has anxiety and gets anxious being away from home. The program I applied for was the exchange program with Florence University of the Arts in Italy. This was a different study abroad experience for me because it wasn’t a structured program. I would just be going to school in Italy.

For this program, I would be traveling there by myself, and I would be responsible for caring for myself which included budgeting money, buying groceries, cooking meals for myself and more. I’ve never traveled alone before aside from short trips or guided programs with school.

Honestly, I am a bit of a recluse. I enjoy spending time in a safe space like my home with friends and family. But, despite that, I couldn’t shake that part of me that wanted to explore and travel the world. My personality is at constant odds with itself because of this. One part of me wants to try new things and the other wants things to stay the same. So, even though it was something I really wanted to do, traveling to another country with no known support system was a daunting task to overcome. 

air france plane

Travelers exit AirFrance plane upon arrival in Italy. 

Understanding Your Fears and Accepting Things Out of Your Control 

The first thing I had to do was understand my fears and let them go. I know easier said than done. Instead of thinking about the negative things that could happen while I was away, I began to think of the positives.  

For example, I was afraid of being homesick.

In fact, I was already pre-homesick before I got there. But, after talking myself through it, I realized I can’t stop myself from being homesick. So even though it made me nervous, I began to think of it in the opposite way. What if I love Italy so much that I don’t even want to go back home? (This actually happened.)

Another reason I was nervous about going was because I have a massive case of FOMO, or fear of missing out. I was afraid of life going on at home without me there, missing important events. But what I wasn’t realizing was that I would be in Italy creating my own experiences and memories. 

Tower of PIsa
The breathtaking Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta is depicted adjacent the Tower of Pisa. 

Planning for Success 

I want to preface that these things did not cure my anxiety, but they did ease my mind about going. So, I took the risk and signed up for the exchange program with Florence University of the Arts. I spent my fall semester planning, saving money and looking for necessities to bring with me on my excursions. If I was going to do this, I needed to be prepared. It began to get closer and closer to the end of the semester, and I started to become more comfortable with the thought of being away. I signed up for my classes, and because of the courses I signed up for I didn’t stay for the whole semester. At the time, that was a relief to me. I set up my flight and was just counting down the days until my fantasy of traveling the world would become reality. 

February 19, 2022. That was the day I was scheduled to depart to Italy. All of the work I spent planning for this trip was finally coming to an end. Yet I still couldn’t shake the feeling of my anxiety weighing over me. I no longer felt like I could do it. What was I doing going halfway across the world? I wanted to just stay home and not think about Italy. I had to get myself on that plane, but I just felt like I couldn’t do it. It would be so much easier if I could just flip a switch in my head to turn off the anxiety.  

Arno River in Florence

The Arno River of Florence, which is home to the well-known Ponte Vecchio. 

To be honest the only thing that got me through security was my guilt. I spent so much time and money preparing for this. I couldn’t just quit like that. Not after everything I accomplished to get here. I said goodbye to my family with my eyes full of tears. I was really doing it. I felt myself panicking internally but wanted to stay calm in front of my family. What happened next was not what I expected.

I went through security and as soon as I passed TSA I felt a weight being lifted off my shoulders. My anxiety turned to excitement once I realized what I was doing. I was facing my fears and going abroad despite the anxiety. Everything was good, I was safe and I’d be there before I knew it. 

I Went, I Ate, I Lived 

I honestly wish I could describe everything I did while I was away in detail, but I know nothing can compare to the experience itself.  Also, I’m not sure who’s willing to read my 20-page journal of each day I was there. So, I’ll give a very brief summary. I went, I ate, I lived. For one of the first times in my life, I felt like a real adult. 

Crowd at a football match in Italy
Fiorentene football fans spectate a match against Sicily.

I went grocery shopping, I cooked for myself and my roommates in my apartment. I went to the bar, I went to clubs, I roomed the streets and enjoyed rooftop views of the duomo as the sun set. I lived. Every day felt like a new adventure, and it made me pause and instead of living in survival mode, waking up, working, sleeping and repeating. I lived every moment while I was there because I knew it would be over before I knew it. I still can’t believe I got this experience and believe everyone should have this opportunity to experience life outside of their traditional home or comfort zone. 

Collage of Italian pastas

Delicious homemade pastas from Northern Italy. 

Homesickness Abroad 

One of my biggest fears about going abroad was missing my family and being homesick. Now I get feelings of homesickness when thinking about Italy. I miss the city of Florence like it is my home. Even after only being there for a couple of months, I felt so connected with the community and city that it truly did feel like home away from home. Maybe that’s a bit cliché, but it’s honestly how I felt.

I even felt that way with my roommates. In a way we were like The Breakfast Club. We were all very different people with different backgrounds going into this situation knowing nothing of each other. If we weren’t living together, we likely wouldn’t have connected due to our differing interests, but I couldn’t imagine having better people to live with.  

Picture of Leah with roommates

Ward depicted along with her FUA roommates posed together for their last day in Italy. 

Evolving to Become My Best Self 

Going to Florence for me was not only a great opportunity, but it was also an experience that compelled me to explore things outside of my comfort zone. I was able to become more comfortable with myself as an independent person.

I often would shop, walk and dine out alone because on weekends my roommates were typically traveling. It was an experience like never before and has made me more confident when going to new places alone. It’s nice to experience moments individually at times and can help you grow more as a person. 
Basically, what I'm trying to say is that if you can study abroad, you should. Yes, it’s scary but if you let your fear control every aspect of your life you may never experience new things. University is the best time for people to go abroad because you are able to further your education while abroad instead of having to take time off. 

Landscape of Vernazza

The Vibrant architecture of Vernazza, Italy.

Study Abroad with JWU 

If you would like to learn more about study abroad opportunities at JWU you can do so by visiting the JWU Study Abroad website. There are tons of different programs available to choose from that could be used to enhance your education. 

Learn More About JWU Study Abroad

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