Tips for the Twenty-Something’s First Year Overseas

While some people enter the field with years of life experience under their belt, there are many of us who enter it with little to none.

I was twenty-two, bright-eyed, and inexperienced. Not only had I never been on a service trip in my life, but I was also a fresh college grad. I knew little to nothing about cross-cultural service, and just as little about life as a working adult.

Serving overseas takes an immense amount of adjustment and energy, and so does a college graduate’s transition to the “real world.” My year overseas felt like a double whammy of adulthood. Yet, the challenges God presented me with taught me vital lessons for first-year survival, and how to establish a support system. While I am an expert by no means, I know the following advice—some of it given by co-workers, some of it learned the hard way—is the kind of stuff I will always carry with me.

By all means, read up on culture shock. Culture shock is very real. It’s so real that investing in a book, or two, or three, is completely worth it. Going through the adjustment is already hard—going through it blindly is even harder! Only after struggling on my own did I finally invest in reading about cultural adjustments overseas. Since then, I’ve found this research-oriented approach applies to just about anything you encounter in the adult world.

Expand your understanding of culture shock by talking with your American co-workers. The ups and downs of culture shock can make us feel shameful and embarrassed—why does everyone in this new place seem completely at ease, while you feel anxious, scared, upset and, at times, downright insane? The reason:  they’ve all gone through it before. So ask them what it was like, and how they got through those first stages. Bringing this hefty topic out on the table will ease your transition and allow them to apply their expertise.

Educate yourself about your host country and its culture. Whether it’s through books, newspapers, websites, or conversations you initiate with locals and Americans, understanding your new home’s history and its people’s way of life will transform challenging situations into ones that are less baffling and more tolerable, paving room for fascination and even joy.

Find an expat mentor. Seek someone who’s lived in your host country for a while, is knowledgeable and fond of the culture, and could make a good friend. She will help you immensely. Without my mentor, I would’ve gone insane! She taught me so many things about my job, life, and faith. Pray for someone who will take you under her wing.

Seek out a local mentor. Not only can you gain a deeper understanding of your host country through this friend, thereby easing your adjustment, but she can also act as a bridge for you to become part of the local community. In addition, you’ll feel more welcomed. Because forming a friendship with a local will take more time and effort than with an American, ask your work colleagues, both local and expatriate, to introduce you to someone who has had ample experience with foreigners.

Make self-care a top priority. Take time out for yourself, and even more than usual—because of the hardships you’re facing, you need to be extra generous. Whether it’s extra time alone to decompress, or more time spent socializing, make it a priority. You deserve it.

Know that your struggles, though painful, are lessons of gold. Overseas, everything that was once familiar to me, that I had identified myself with, was gone. More specifically, the crutches of my own society that had substituted for my faith all those years were no longer around. The struggles I faced brought me down to the dirt and mud, and it was there, crying out, that I found Christ in a way I had never known Him—dirty and muddy, too, for our sins. Without those struggles, I wouldn’t have grown in my faith, and I wouldn’t have the relationship with Him I have today.

Trust that God is good. You may wonder the following:  What am I doing here? Why is this so hard? and Where is God? For me, these questions weren’t in the back of my mind, light and wandering—they were at the forefront, igniting panic and fear. But God is always with you; He will never leave you or forsake you (Deut. 31:6). As my closest friend and mentor would tell me, time and time again:  God is good. He loves you; He has a plan for you. And He will provide.

What tips would you add? 

15 Comments

  1. Megan July 8, 2015

    So true! I’ve been so thankful for the mentors I have and for the time they pour into me. Not only have I learned about culture and their work, but they also share wisdom on marriage, raising a family overseas, and share their day-to-day lives.

    For me, community seemed to be my biggest challenge. Coming fresh out of college and out of a small town was difficult for me because of my expectations. Community just looks different overseas… And it especially looks different as an adult! It was so important for me to find a small group of women to share my successes and struggles with… Also to be willing to open my home or start up small things like game nights or devotional times with other co-workers. Finding time to live life with each other… This really made me feel more at home and at ease in my new culture.

    Thanks for sharing. I am twenty-two and have so much to learn, so it’s appreciated!

  2. Hannah July 9, 2015

    Megan,

    I am so glad to hear you’ve found some good mentors. What a difference they make! It sounds like they’ve given you more than you even expected, and that’s awesome.

    Yes, I would agree–community overseas is a huge challenge. You’re right, it’s so different–both locally for the people there and for the expat community. And the latter is not one you’d suspect! But social dynamics are really thrown when you take a group of people from the same place, and deposit them elsewhere. AND that’s A LOT to juggle when you’re twenty-two and fresh out of college! Tell me about it, sister.

    Sharing successes and struggles. Well-put, my friend. Well-put. They must be shared in order to survive, and also in order to thrive!

    And I also really like your game night and devotional time ideas. Don’t those make such a difference?

    I am so glad to hear you’ve found community in the midst of your journey, Megan! And thank you also for reading! I’m glad you liked the article. 🙂

  3. Hannah July 9, 2015

    Wowzers. Do not know why my picture is so big. Sorry, folks!

  4. Cristy July 9, 2015

    Thank you Hannah for some great points. I came in my early 20’s and am now in my early 40’s!

    A few things I would add –

    When you seek out a local mentor or work partner please be aware that your role is not to use her for her friendship or local knowledge. Please be a real friend! I have seen so many people attach themselves to local friends and then the local friend doesn’t want to be part of her own culture anymore but wants to live in her expat friends’ world.

    Self care in moderation! Yes the culture can be tiring and stressful but that doesn’t mean I need to be constantly resting. Take your Sabbath and make it restful doing what bring life to your body and spirit.

     

     

    1. Hannah July 10, 2015

      I agree with your pointers, Cristy! Thanks so much for commenting!

  5. Julie July 10, 2015

    This is good!
    One thing I would have emphasized to myself that first year (and every year!) is “be humble!” My job there was to help the people I came to help, not to accomplish my own agenda and get my nose out of joint if they wanted something done differently than I did. I was there to serve like Christ served. Sometimes I know I wanted my own comfort, my own success, my own fun…at the expense of my coworkers’. Humility is key to being able to work as a team, and especially important in extra-stressful situations.

    1. Hannah July 10, 2015

      Julie,

      What a great point! If I could have summed up my first year in one word, it would “humbling.” It was in every which way. And it’s so true–we really are there to serve as Christ serves.

      Thanks for your great comments!

  6. brooke July 11, 2015

    I really liked the point about humility and the point about not abusing national friendships.

    Too often we want to change the world.  We see problems and want to fix them all overnight.  I would suggest that you be in ministry in your home culture long before heading to a new culture. We can have all the “book knowledge” about ministry and M work but until you have been in the midst of if, you will mostly criticize. Those who have gone before know so much and have much advice to give.

    Be careful and open you mouth only when you should. Watch and learn and then find how you fit in to the mix. Use your giftings for the benefit of all.

     

    1. Julie July 11, 2015

      Great comment, Brooke!

    2. Hannah July 16, 2015

      Brooke, you have such good thoughts. How necessary it is to listen when first arriving to a new place and doing ministry there! Thanks for your words. 🙂

  7. lauren July 12, 2015

    i think the biggest lesson my first year is teaching is that Jesus is fantastic at navigating messes. i see him perhaps more frequently in the middle of the scattered and the chaotic than in the sublime. it’s in the moments that we are absolutely not ok that he seems to come so sweetly. he’s truly enough, actually sufficient, and wholly worth it. and so i’m not ok. but he is. and i’m in him. and he’s doing it.

    1. Hannah July 16, 2015

      Lauren, said so well! Gosh! I love your words! “I see him perhaps more frequently in the middle of the scattered and chaotic than in the sublime.” How true, how TRUE.

  8. lauren July 12, 2015

    yikes! same problem! i thought the upload photo was for the profile on the side, not a massive billboard of my face – apologies!

  9. AJ July 14, 2015

    I love that you included finding an expat and local mentor! I think both can enrich your life so much and help you as you seek to learn through your experience overseas and get the very most out of it.

    1. Hannah July 16, 2015

      Thanks so much, AJ! Yes, I feel like having both gives a really great balance.

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