You Need Help: Taking the Leap to Study Abroad

Q:

I’ve been accepted to study abroad in Oregon for a year, and while I would love to go I’m worried that I’ll crumble once I’m away from home. I got sexually assaulted by my (now ex) house-mate and fellow student in October, and I have surgery for endometriosis soon that’s bringing back lots of trauma. I was already on the fence about staying in university — I’m a mature student and would prefer to be able to distance learn, as most of my life and friends are in a different city to my university. Moving to Portland would be a dream come true, but I’m scared about being away from my support network, and finding people to live with who I can trust. Should I go? Should I take a break from studying? And if I do go, how do I find people to live with in Portland when I’m currently in the UK?

A:

Congratulations! Studying abroad, like most other adventures, is both very exciting and very challenging at once — even without the stresses of trauma or health issues on top of everything. My time as an international student (twice, in Australia and in the US) were longer-term than your study-abroad program, and I didn’t go to Portland specifically, but there are similarities in strategies and resources.

Trauma, whether very recently or in the past (or even upcoming!) need not be a barrier for pursuing opportunities like study abroad, as intense as they can be. A major reason for my move to San Francisco was indeed to escape and heal from years of trauma that had built up in Brisbane: sexual assault, burned career and personal bridges, dealing with uncomfortable epiphanies about my identity and what I needed from life. Going to San Francisco was near-literally life or death. It was tremendously difficult to organise my trip in a fog of exhaustion and deep depression, but a lifetime of experience with visas and the knowledge that a fresh start in my most favourite city in the world would be beneficial for me in the long run helped me power through.

Your university’s study abroad program (both the one in the UK and the one in Portland) would have a lot of resources on the logistics of study abroad, including managing visa paperwork, housing, and health insurance. This is what the International Students Services Department is for, but feel free to ask the other departments too — including Financial Aid, Disability, Student Services, and much more. Also, have a poke around the student clubs of the Portland university you’re going to — including any clubs for international students, LGBTQ students, female students, and others. At the very least, if they don’t know the answer, they can direct you to someone who does, and you’ll have made some connections that you can tap into once you arrive.

There are a lot of resources online for international students going anywhere around the world, especially studying in the United States from the United Kingdom. The Fulbright Commission can provide advice on preparing for study into the US, even if you’re not going to Portland as one of their scholars. College Choice has a massive resource for LGBTQ college students and the US State Department has resources specifically for international LGBTQ students coming to the US.

Finding somewhere to live while abroad was tricky. When I moved to Brisbane I first lived in a residential college (think a mashup between a dorm and a frat/sorority house, though ours had significantly less hazing) called International House, geared towards international students. International House has a few chapters around the world – if your UK university is near one, that could make a good first step. (They’re generally affiliated with specific universities but you don’t have to go to that specific university to reside there; for instance, IH in Brisbane was connected to University of Queensland but I went to Queensland University of Technology). It looks like this kind of dorm housing is called “halls” in the UK; perhaps you can look for some halls near your university and see if they accept applications (again, the International Students department at your incoming school can help with this).

Housing in the US was trickier. I could have also gone to International House there (there was a branch attached to UC Berkeley) but it would have been pretty far from my school in downtown SF. I joined a stack of Facebook groups related to housing in the Bay Area and found my first apartment there. Vanessa suggests the groups Portland Queer Housing and PDX Queer Exchange at least as starting points. Padmapper helps sort and filter out Craigslist housing ads based on location, price, and other factors — really useful especially if you are looking for places accessible geographically from your school. I found that being upfront about who I was (especially that I was an international student) did help — there were a few people that were down for giving me Skype tours. Also, if you have friends of friends who are in Portland, or even those student groups suggested above, they may be able to connect you or give slightly more personal references.

Health matters in the United States, as an international student, can frankly be a nightmare. As an international student you’d be required to get some form of health insurance; sometimes the school already has a system in place (such as their own insurance or even their own clinics) but sometimes you’ll have to get your own, and good God there are so many scams out there. I was lucky enough to be covered under the ACA/Obamacare, since at least in the Bay Area they don’t really care so much about your visa status – I don’t know if this holds true for other states. FreeClinics has a listing of free or low-income clinics in Portland and Planned Parenthood could also be a good start for medical help; I got to see them in SF as an international student.

There are options available for help with trauma and mental health stresses, including affordable therapy options (useful if your insurance doesn’t cover psychotherapy). The Portland Therapy Centre, Wise Counsel & Comfort, and Portland Psychotherapy have published lists of therapists that offer sliding-scale or reduced-fee services. The Oregon Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence, Oregon Attorney-General’s Sexual Assault Task Force, and Sexual Assault Resource Centre also have resources.

I found that when it came to resources and options that were hyper-local, it can be hard to ask about them because you don’t even know it’s an option for you. It was a medical emergency that led to me signing up for Obamacare; when I told the social worker in Oakland that I wasn’t a citizen, she told me it didn’t matter. This is where connecting with the student groups in particular could be most useful; they’d be your peers, they’d likely know local non-institutional sources of support, they’ll be able to figure out secret options that even the official school departments don’t know about. Don’t assume “oh I’m an international student I’m not going to qualify for anything;” I found that the US were much, much more flexible about access to services and support regardless of visa or nationality, especially if it’s not something the Federal Government organises.

Building a support network when you’re away can be very very hard. Coming in SF was hard despite having been there before, because it was a whole new context. Being part of a study abroad program means that you should be linked into some support networks already, but don’t be afraid to branch out! Check out local events, go to whatever looks interesting, attend meetings in your school or neighbourhood, join clubs. Also, maintain the relationships you already have in the UK or elsewhere; even if your only contact with them is online, that’s still something to lean on when you feel alone. If your UK friends can start connecting you to Portland friends, great! See if anyone’s willing to take you around and keep you company. I had old friends of distant relatives get in touch and take me out. I feel like we underestimate acquaintances sometimes — we may not be close or familiar to them, but they can sometimes be the strongest sources of support just because they were there at the right time giving you exactly what you’re after.

Ultimately, it’s your decision on whether or not you want to take up this study abroad opportunity. If you wish to defer to recover from surgery, or decide not to go at all, or decide to go somewhere else, that’s totally fine! Your chances of making your Portland dreams come true won’t disappear forever if you decide to let this one go for whatever reason. But don’t let the possible stresses scare you away. You may find, like I did, that Portland will give you the resources and space for you to heal and grow in ways that you couldn’t find in the UK. There are more resources out there than you necessarily realise; ask around and see what you can find.

Best of luck!

Creatrix Tiara's philosophy is to sign up for anything that look interesting, which gets her into some fun adventures. She's passionate about liminality, inclusivity, and intersectionality, especially in arts, media, tech, games, fandom, education, and activism.

Creatrix has written 24 articles for us.

30 Comments

  1. Hi!
    I went away with Erasmus, and failed bitterly.
    Now, I could give you a super long list of things I should and could’ve done differently ( like bring a lap top and not Moby Dick, learn the language first..), but what it boils down to is:
    Make sure you’re leaving to go somewhere and not to get away from something.
    From what it sounds like, you want to go, but you’re afraid for your emotional and mental well being and that is great!
    This means you’re well prepared to realize what you need, search for it and make sure you will have at least a dozen back up plans.
    Personally, I think Portland is a great choice, this is a great opportunity and going to be a great experience. One you totally deserve.
    You’re going to have a lgbti+ diaspora to fall back on, speak the language and will be well connected to your peer network, virtually whenever, wherever, because there will probably be wifi on every street and street corner.
    Americans also are ridiculously easy to get along with. They will be friends with you in a space of five minutes, and be game to tag and drag you along to wherever, whenever, all the time.
    If everything fails and you just can’t get into it, travel the rest of the US (there’s a literal train down to California from Portland) or just return to the UK.
    No one is physically stapling you to Oregon.
    I broke off my Erasmus eventually but I‘m still glad I went!
    P.S.:That Netflix Show „You, Me,Her“ takes place in Portland, and they show the city a bit.
    Good luck and maybe good travels to you!

    • I would caution against “just travel down the US” – it may compromise your student visa as you’d be expected to maintain school attendance to be able to stay in the country. If you ditch school for travel while still on your student visa, you could get into a hell of a lot of trouble with immigration that can lead to deportation, a ban from the US, and potential blacklisting from other countries (especially given the current administration).

      If you feel like you need to leave early or change, TALK TO YOUR INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS DIRECTOR FIRST. They will be able to advise you on what to do without jeopardizing future travel chances.

      • She was probably talking about breaks since American universities have loads of them. In the fall alone I have like 2 long ones (a week each), and 4 short ones (1 or 2 days making long weekends). There is nothing to do on campus during break so most people leave to go home or go on trips. Your student visa could be in jeopardy if you are habitually skipping class and accumulate enough absences to get an automatic fail and be dropped from your course. But otherwise, you are free to move about the country as you wish.

  2. I’ve also studied abroad a few times (I’m American and did a semester in Melbourne and my Master’s in London), and studying abroad will, for better or for worse, push you to your limits — one of the things I’d most strongly consider with respect to your mental health is how a month or two of loneliness will affect you. Perhaps counterintuitively, I’ve found that it’s the extroverts such as myself who have often struggled the most with study abroad, as I do NOT do well with limited meaningful socialization. Conversely, many of my more introverted friends were happy to push through the orientation/getting-to-know-you activities and then quite enjoyed the down time in between to recharge on their own.

    Of all the places to study abroad in the US, Portland sounds like a perfect choice, for what it’s worth. Best of luck and enjoy, whatever you decide!

    • HA! I’m an extrovert too but I can see what you mean about isolation being hard. Being in IH my first semester in Brisbane was good for me in that regard because I ended up meeting a pile of people at once. I also signed up for damn near everything in and out of uni, which also helped with the isolation.

  3. I’m an american undergrad student in Buenos Aires, Argentina right now finishing up the last days of my study abroad semester, and I’m so sad to leave. I didn’t know anyone when I got here 5 months ago, but now I have so many friends from so many places, it has only inspired me to travel more so I can visit them all. I got to see the debate for safe, legal, and free abortion unfold before me, and I went out into the streets to participate, ultimately being present for the historic, narrow and emotional House legislature vote in favor (it still has to pass the senate but things are looking up). I learned about politics, culture, history, had flings, crushes, heartbreaks, and sometimes I felt alone.
    The first month you are there, everything is so new and exciting and strange and all the exchange students are friends cause they haven’t formed groups yet. After this time though, people start to split off into smaller 4-5 person groups that hang out more exclusively, and also, school comes into full swing. After the initial culture shock wears off, people usually start to feel homesick and lonely. For me, it didn’t last long as I made lots of good friends, but I did miss home and all my close friends there and family. After the 3nd month people usually start to get more acclimated and comfortable in their new routine and surroundings. For me at that time, I no longer missed home, though I still missed certain people sometimes. I don’t think I really felt like I really lived here and wasn’t just passing through until the 4th month, which is why it is so jarring to go home now. If I had more time, I would stay but my last year of school starts in August.
    All in all I feel my time abroad was extremely valuable, you can read about other countries all you want, but there was so much I couldn’t understand about Argentina until I was in it and living it. That being said, I wasn’t carrying any trauma with me and I can’t begin to imagine how that feels. I hope this person will be able to go abroad, especially since portland is such a nice place. It is a nice city with some very good people in it, and as a foreign student you will make a lot of friends right away with the other exchange students. I don’t know why I typed all this out, but I’m leaving saturday morning and I’m feeling kinda emotional so, there ya go.

  4. Hard decidion to make, is there a chance you could have regular skype hours with your support network back home and maybe go back during Christmas break? Might be the „I got backup“ feel that you need for going to Portland, your dream.
    As for finding a new, safe home and welcoming friends, maybe living in a Coop might be for you? I was once an exchange student in the US and living in a coop, full of lovely weirdos and many internationals (and good! food!) made me immediately feel at home.

    • I agree with the Skype dates! It feels weird to ask a friend if you can Skype from 3-4pm their time on Wednesdays, but in my experience it’s really worth asking because people get busy and if they don’t see your face they might forget that they wanted to Skype with you. I lived on another continent than my best friends and partner for many years, and when I remembered to do this it made my life so much happier!

  5. All of this is excellent advice! I loved studying abroad–it changed my life and career path for the better–but it can be a challenging experience, especially if you are leaving the good support system already in place back home.
    As a mature student, this may not be your cup of tea, but when I studied in Italy I had a host family, and that helped immensely. They taught me about Italian culture, made me feel at home, and fed me the best meals of my life. Sometimes being queer with a host family can be complicated, but I have a feeling that somewhere in Portland is an adorable older lesbian couple who would love to be your host-parents/cool queer aunts and show you the scene.

  6. Seconding the Portland Queer Housing Facebook group! That’s where I found my current roomie. Virtually all of my friends have found their housing setups there, often on short notice. Especially if you have a couple months you should be golden. You can also join Queer Housing in Portland and Queer Exchange PDX for good measure, but Portland Queer Housing is the main one. Best of luck and happy travels!

  7. I’d recommend having a good look at the website for the uni you’d attend. A lot of universities offer affordable or even free counseling services and many also have staff specifically for assisting mature students.

    Studying abroad is such a unique opportunity and I hope you get to make your dream come true. It is difficult, and only you can decide if now is the right time for you, but I think the above advice is worth taking into account. Particularly the idea of planning ways to keep in touch with your support by distance while you build new friendships and support in Portland and the fact that even if you go and decide it’s too much, there are ways to leave early if you really must. Don’t go into it expecting to need to do that, but know that you won’t be trapped.

    Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Professors are often (not always, sadly, but often) understanding. If you struggle and get behind or such, it’s worth asking for help or more time etc. A friend of mine went through a difficult period and was able to get an incomplete in a couple of classes, which got corrected to her normal grade once she turned her essays in (weeks late). But you have to be brave and ask for help yourself.

    Sending good vibes for your surgery and wish you all the best, whichever path you take!

  8. Ugh, endometriosis surgery… you have my sympathy, buddy, I know that pain. I had my first laparoscopy and excision of endo tissue when I was sixteen and it wiped me out, I couldn’t laugh without pain or walk up stairs for months, it was rugged. I’m in uni now and desperately hoping that medication can put off the next surgery for as long as possible. I hope it goes well for you and you heal as well as possible <3 <3 <3

    If you're going to be still recovering from the surgery while you're overseas you should DEFINITELY contact the disability services at the American uni, to touch base and make connections. If you've got something like that seriously impacting on your health and they know about it, they might do things like make it easier for you to get approval for extensions etc if your health makes it all become to hard at some point. Worth checking out, for sure.

  9. Hi Anon
    What a wonderful opportunity!
    I too did a year abroad in the US (Michigan) from France. It was both wonderful and also difficult mentally (struggled with depression except didn’t seek help for it, but on the flip side had some of the best classes ever and it led me to pursue an academic career).

    From the UK perspective a couple of things that might help:
    – how is your relationship with your personal/pastoral tutor? Some of these issues are things that you might want to discuss with them, that’s what they’re here for! If you don’t feel comfortable talking to them, do you have any other relationship with a lecturer/professor that you feel comfortable talking to?
    -depending on which Uni you’re in in the UK, student councelling and wellbeing will be either really good or not so good. If you think they could help you it might be worth booking an appointment. That’s also something you can do in the US when you get there as some have suggested.

    -try to see if you can be put in touch with students who’ve done the year abroad in Portland thing at your uni; it might be useful to get tips from them/feedback from their own experiences

    Finally… If you’d rather do a DL program, have you thought about transferring to one?

  10. Oh Also my experience of US Uni is that there were quite a few more mature students than in Europe (at least in the 300/400 courses), or students who were also more responsible (ie working while studying, already with a career etc, rather than UK students partying until the end of their degree), so you might find that you fit better there.

  11. Thanks for linking to us! The Oregon Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence is happy to provide referrals to numerous resources, including LGBTQ-specific service providers, throughout the state.

    One quick note: The Sexual Assault Resource Center linked in this article is not the correct one. Our SARC is at http://www.sarcoregon.org/

  12. Hi!!! I’m a German expat who lives in PDX rn, so if you need friendly queer faces, I’d be super happy to help! I moved to Portland about 16 months ago, and I am still feeling the culture shock (American culture is weird, y’all) so I would be happy to commiserate/celebrate/hang out!

  13. Hi, I am the person who asked this question! Thank you so much for your advice, this is so helpful, especially the housing advice. As of this week I have had my visa approved, so now I’m focused entirely on house hunting. I have spent time living in a few different countries, but I always had family somewhere to fall back on. Fingers crossed that after a few months there I’ll find myself a big queer family away from home haha. The surgery went well and in the last month I’ve really started to heal physically and emotionally, so I’m hoping that this experience will be a challenge that pushes me to keep growing in the right direction. Thank you again x

    • I’m glad! (Sorry again about getting confused about housing halfway through the piece!) I hope it all works out for you!

      It often takes me a while to find that queer family, but I think something like a set study-abroad program is almost designed to speed up that process. But that’s also why my approach is to throw myself into everything. I wish for that family for you!

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