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  • Writer's pictureLily Carlson

10 Things I Learned from Living Abroad

They say you never forget your first time…

Leaving YYZ to move abroad to Lithuania! (2016)

Living abroad, that is, come on guys.

“Living abroad” …  it sounds so exotic, doesn’t it? Mysterious? Try exciting, terrifying, adventurous, difficult, amazing and complicated, all at the same time. Well, at the age of 27, I’ve done my fair share of living abroad… creating a new home in 5 different countries (other than my native land), to be exact. And to be honest, I’ve never forgotten each and every time I took that leap of faith into the exciting and terrifying unknown.

My first time taking the plunge was when I took an internship position in the Amazon Basin of Peru in 2012. The next time was during the third year of my Bachelor’s Degree when I studied abroad for a semester in Guatemala, and the third time was after graduation, when I moved to the United Kingdom for my first ‘job’, interning for a not-for-profit organization based outside of London. After that, I left to study for my Master’s Degree which would lead me to study and live in both Lithuania and Italy.

Exploring my new home in Guatemala, 2013

And you know what? While all of these experiences were so incredibly different, special, unique, and unforgettable in different ways, there were common lessons I encountered through each adventure.

Besides the exposure to culture shock, introduction to new languages and cultures, and many other things that come along with travelling to a new place different from the comfort of your home borders, here are 10 things I learned from living abroad.

1. Doing something that scares you can be one of the best feelings in the world.

Think about it. This has to be one of the biggest curveballs you can throw into your everyday routine; your comfort zone; your life as you know it. It’s bound to bring up nerves, fears, and moments of anxiety. But then, you go ahead and do it anyway. THAT IS AMAZING. Going through with something you want to do, despite your fears, is an incredible thing to accomplish and is bound to boost your confidence in both your sense of self and ambition for future achievements.

My University in Vilnius, Lithuania

2. You're capable of more than you think you are.

Going off the first point, once you’ve moved abroad, especially if you’ve moved alone, you’ll quickly realize you don’t have anyone else to depend on except you. Sure, you will meet many friendly and helpful people, you’ll make friends, and you can always call mom and dad, but at any given moment, your one guarantee is you. This is both totally scary and awesome. You’ll learn to trust your gut, figure out your own sh*t, solve your own problems, and you will become more resourceful than you’ve ever been. Crossing boundaries and stepping outside of your comfort zone, you’ll realize you had it in you all along.

Studying for my Lithuanian language test, 2016

3. It’s not all amazing photo ops and thrilling adventures.

Once you’ve arrived in your new home, you’ll likely be on to feelings of excitement, awing at everything from the airport you land in, to the streets and landscapes that surround you, to the people you encounter, and so on and so forth. You can often ride this high for quite some time, but remember, everything you see on social media is a highlight reel… so, people don’t tend to publicly share much about things like bureaucratic challenges, visa issues, cultural/language barriers, housing challenges, etc. But remember, as already mentioned, you. will. figure. it. out. And, you’ll experience thrilling adventures and amazing photo ops at the same time.

4. You own too much stuff!

When you have to pack up your whole life for x amount of time in only a couple of 50lb suitcases, you quickly realize how much stuff you can actually live without. Chances are, you won’t even miss 90% of the things you leave behind. If/when you do move back to your roots, purging will likely become a regular activity and you’ll become better at asking and answering the question “do I really need this?”

Backpacking around the UK, 2015

5. You’ll experience some of your highest of highs and perhaps your lowest of lows.

Ever hear of “the process of culture shock and cultural adaptation”?

Curve of Cultural Adaptation: image taken from

As you can see from the curve above, the basis is that in the beginning you are both sad (from goodbyes) and happy (with the prospect of new adventures, yay!). You’ll first enter the honeymoon stage where everything is new, exciting, and wonderful, and then enter a period of culture shock. During this stage, you may begin to miss the comforts of home – friends, family, comfort food, cultural norms, etc. However, this will pass and you will soon learn to adjust and find a balance. After this point, if you are there long enough, you will integrate and adapt to the new way of life.

Friends and classmates on a school trip to Rome during my 2017 studies in Italy (Represented by South Korea, Brazil, USA, Canada, Vietnam, Russia, and Germany)

What the curve does not account for, is life’s many surprises and unplanned outcomes. Unfortunately, the reality of uprooting your life and moving it elsewhere is that you may miss out on some pretty significant life events back home. On the other side of things, you may also miss a chance to say goodbye to someone from an unexpected passing. When trials and tribulations come your way, you may feel lonely, sad, depressed, anxious, or helpless. Unfortunately, these are some of the realities. The good news is, these things will be countered with some unforgettable and rewarding highs. From experiencing new things to learning new hobbies, to adjusting to a new way of living; building new relationships, making new connections, and all of the other incredible opportunities and experiences that come with travel and being in a new country, you’ll be sure to make some of the most incredible memories that you will hold on to for the rest of your life. I’m talking, the tales you will tell your great-grandchildren about and the things they make movies based on… I promise.

Classmates hiking Volcan Pacaya in Guatemala, 2013.

6. You’ll go home a different person (every time).

Because of everything you have experienced, you will not go home the same person you were when you first left. This is a 100% guarantee. It’s just not possible. But breathe easy because this will be because of how much you have grown due to your experiences learning from another culture, new relationships, and a new way of living. These things will bring about new perspectives, a more open mind, and an awareness that once did not exist. And that is amazeeeee, guys.

Working during my internship in Peru, 2012

7. Some people might not get it.

That last point being said, some people are just not going to totally get that you’ve changed. And you know what? That’s okay. If you move abroad for a period of time and then go back to your homeland, people will probably be very excited to hear about your adventures… at first, that is. However, you’ll likely find that some of your friends and family might become less engaged the more you share and the longer you talk about them. But try to remember — It’s not because they don’t care or they don’t want to be supportive, they just might not get it… how you’ve changed or grown, or what you’ve experienced – especially when it comes to readjusting.

Friends, UK 2015

The reality is, it’s difficult for people to engage with things they do not understand. What’s most difficult is that this period of time has been your life and it will be the most relevant thing to you. On the other side, you may find it difficult to not be able to relate to the most recent happenings in your loved ones’ lives. You’ll miss your friends from abroad and you might even feel less connected to your friends from home because of all of it. But this last part will pass and once more, you will readjust.

My school bestie from Germany and I exploring Lapland, Finland at Christmas in Europe, 2016

Tip: Keep in touch with your friends from abroad and share with them what you are feeling and what you have been missing since your return. Another tip is to find someone close who has experienced living abroad and talk to them. You will need support from people who understand what you’re going through.

8. Change is good.

Bonding with new friends from Germany and Italy during our first days in Lithuania, 2016

Now that we’ve addressed returning as a different person from when you first left, it’s important to remember how and why you have changed. It’s because you grew… you threw yourself into crazy new situations you were previously unfamiliar with and you adapted. You saw things with your own eyes some people only see online or read about in the news, you built a community with people of entirely different backgrounds to you, and you probably matured in ways you may never have if you simply stayed where you were in the first place. Be proud of how you have been molded, influenced, and changed. Things may change for you in certain relationships upon your return, but that’s a part of life and growing up. We learn, we grow, we change, and we push forward – the result of moving abroad is no exception. And remember this is a good thing.

Celebrating Pride in London, UK (2015)

9. It’s ok to feel what you feel.

Okay, you’re probably sitting there thinking “uhhh yeah, Lily, that sounds pretty standard”. But seriously, it took me a while to adjust to this frame of thinking. Similar to when you return home, when you make the choice to move abroad, you’ll likely experience things that hit you with a whirlwind of emotions. But, just because you made the choice to leave the comfort of your friends, family, and familiar life back home for something new, doesn’t mean you have to have it together all the time. You’re allowed to feel lonely, sad, nervous, and/or scared… it’s normal. But, on the other side, you also shouldn’t feel guilty if it makes you happy. Just because you’ve chosen to uproot your life and move abroad doesn’t mean you don’t miss your loved ones from back home. It doesn’t mean that the new friends you make are better than the ones you (physically) left. You’re allowed to make whatever choices you decide to make, and you’re allowed to feel any emotions that come along with them. DO NOT FEEL GUILTY FOR THAT.

10. Life goes on, not just for you, but everyone else back home too.

Again, I feel like this might sound obvious, but so many times, it would feel as though life back home was just put on “pause”, like a scene out of ‘Click’, while I was off gallivanting around the world. Silly? Maybe. But just as you’ve chosen to move abroad for a new adventure, everyone else back home will continue to make choices with/without you in mind, to continue on with their own adventures. This means that people will also change in the time that you are away and if/when you return, you’ll need to be sensitive to this.

Navigating Milan during my first days after moving to Italy, 2017

BONUS: You get used to it.

You’ll take chances, make mistakes, and get messy (Thanks Ms. Frizzle), and you’ll ride the wave of highs and lows, continually striving to live your best life. Things will be tricky at first, but you’ll adjust and you’ll realize it’s just another part of your amazing life story. To top it all off, you’ll also learn to fall in love with life over and over again, through new lenses, in new and exciting ways you didn’t know were possible.

My partner and I exploring the Italian Riviera during his visit over the Easter holidays, 2017

If you’re someone who has lived abroad, what were some of the lessons you learned during your time away? If you’re someone who has been debating whether to move abroad or not, for studying purposes, work, or just simply experience, I would encourage you to take the leap of faith. Though challenging, I would argue it to be one of the most life-changing and incredible experiences you can possibly offer yourself.

If you have any personal questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me either through the contact on this website or Instagram @lilyslensonlife.

Lots of love and cheers to adventure,

Lily x


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