Expectation vs Reality: The mental and emotional impact of studying abroad


By Lara Hill

A few weekends ago, I went bar hopping with my friends in Amsterdam. You would probably expect me to be dancing and singing to the reggaeton music playing at the bar, living my best life abroad. Instead, my mind was overwhelmed with negative thoughts. I spent half the night isolating myself, holding back tears to prevent myself from ruining my friends’ night. 

When I first learned of my acceptance into the Kasteel Well program, everyone I talked to told me I would have the time of my life. They told me I would have so much fun exploring Europe every weekend that I would be too distracted to miss my friends and family back home.

Realistically, my experiences in Europe have been completely different from what I expected. You don’t often hear the words “studying abroad” and “depression” in the same sentence. Before coming to the castle, the word “depression” never crossed my mind. Since I arrived in the small village of Well, I began experiencing my first feelings of depression since high school. 

For some students, studying abroad can be a huge step outside their comfort zone. According to the Huffington Post, students studying abroad are 23 times more likely to need repatriation assistance because of a mental health condition than those abroad for business reasons. With Emerson’s Boston campus residing only 45 minutes away from my hometown of Groton, Massachusetts, this semester was my first experience of being completely independent from my family and everything I know. I knew this prior to arriving in the Netherlands, which caused me anxiety before I began packing for my semester abroad. 

I struggled with depression and post traumatic stress disorder through my freshman and sophomore year of high school. I saw a therapist for two years who gave me tools to take care of myself and be happy. While these skills have helped me through countless difficult situations over the last few years, there is only so much I can handle on my own. My stress level at the castle and other external factors began testing that limit.

Through the first half of the semester, I always felt like I was in a rush. With my initial expectations in place, I traveled every weekend during the first half of the semester so I could explore as many cultures as possible. I told myself I would finish all my school work during the week so I could fully immerse myself in the countries I traveled to. While executing this plan, I constantly felt exhausted, and extenuating circumstances kept popping up. I spent 10 hours traveling to and from the castle most weekends. A few weeks ago, Norwegian Airlines cancelled my flight back from Copenhagen, Denmark, due to high-speed winds in Amsterdam. I missed an entire day of class traveling back to Well for more than 16 hours. 

As each week passed and my travel times increased, I felt my depression coming back. Despite my incredible experiences traveling the first four weekends of the semester, I had an overwhelming feeling of sadness and a lack of motivation looming over me. I became very self-conscious and did not feel like myself. 

However, I repressed these emotions. I did not want my mental health to ruin my time in Europe. I’m supposed to be having the experience of a lifetime. My expectations for my time abroad hindered me from reaching out for the help I needed. I told myself these emotions would dissipate and everything would get back to normal, I just needed to give it some time. 

I did not realize the severity of my depression until it began impacting my experiences traveling. I have a great support system back at home, including my wonderful family and friends who I can go to for anything. However, the time difference and the distance makes it difficult to confide in them. When you are thousands of miles away from your family and most of your friends, it is difficult to figure out how to get help. 

So, what could I do with the resources in Well? Ellen Geleijnse, the counselor for the castle, actively listened to what I had to say, and offered advice based on what she interpreted. I felt a huge weight lifted off my shoulders after letting it all out to an unbiased party.

Senior Advisor for Student Affairs Tikesha Morgan is the Kasteel Well Title IX Liaison and a mandated reporter. Morgan, along with Assistant Director Chester Lee, are excellent resources for students struggling with mental health who need accommodation for classes, such as deadline extensions and moving exam times. 

The Office of Student Affairs at the castle encourages students to reach out so they can provide any additional support to students struggling with mental health. The Healing and Advocacy Collective also provides information for multiple hotlines in the Netherlands on the college’s website that castle students can call for additional 24/7 support. 

When I learned that Kasteel Well students would be sent back to the Boston campus due to the increase in COVID-19 cases, I found it difficult to process. Although I did not feel significantly emotionally impacted, I still found it hard to believe that I had to leave Europe after only six weeks. I saw many of my fellow castle dwellers struggle to process the news and comforted many of my friends who cried. Although we could not control what happened, the news became extremely difficult to process for most.

Studying abroad and exploring new cultures independently has taught me so much about myself and my own mental health. If you are considering studying abroad at Kasteel Well or with any other program, here are some of the tips that helped me the most. 

First of all, do not be afraid to reach out for help. Advocating for yourself and seeking therapy for the first time can feel scary. However, just talking about your issues can be incredibly relieving. Talking or even writing about your emotions and letting everything out can be incredibly helpful when coping with difficult situations. 

Seeking therapy can also be hard because you are being vulnerable with a stranger who does not know your life experiences. However, I have found that a therapist can provide great unbiased advice and will always actively listen to you. Attending therapy always helped me feel heard and validated.

Lastly, self care is incredibly important. Listen to your body and do what is best for you. As Morgan said at the Kasteel Well orientation, you are already studying abroad just by being at the castle. Do not feel pressured to travel every weekend if it feels overwhelming or will have a negative impact on your mental health. Taking weekends off can help you take a break from the exhaustion of traveling. If you need time to yourself to watch Netflix or get some extra sleep, do it. The castle can be incredibly overwhelming at times, so make sure you give yourself time to cope with that stress.