At the beginning of my third year of University, I took two bags and all the courage I could muster, and got on a plane to spend the next four months across the world.
Since I learned that studying abroad would be compatible with the academic requirements for my major in Political Science, I welcomed the opportunity to have my assumptions about communication, people, education and more, challenged in a new cultural context.
My University in West Michigan (USA) had a long established relationship with a school in Cape Coast, Ghana, and it was the only financially feasible option for me at the time—with it being the most affordable program. After careful consideration, I decided to take the plunge, having great anticipation for the unknown that lay before me.
Prior to leaving, however, I didn’t put much thought into how it would feel to leave behind the community I had built at university during my first two years. As it turned out, even though I had a host of new exciting experiences that semester, I also endured significant bouts of homesickness during my time across the world.
To anyone experiencing a time of loneliness or separation, whether because of school or work, I can offer four suggestions that were instrumental in shifting my perspective from a negative to a positive one.
1. Set Boundaries for Communication With Those Back Home
In order to make time for the people and community where I was, I learned that it was really important for me to set boundaries for my communication with people from home. Those boundaries often meant that I would limit the frequency or length of my calls with friends and family.
Limited time on Facebook and social media also kept me from growing envious of the community that my friends back home still shared (without me). This was necessary because in setting these boundaries, it exposed a need and allowed time for developing community right where God had me, in Cape Coast.
With more time to be present, I grew more willing to participate in potentially uncomfortable meetings with new friends in Ghana and less likely to hole up in my room, making excessively long phone calls with familiar friends back home.
2. Plug in to a Christian Community
I had been in Ghana for over a month, when it dawned on me that every relationship I had there was brand new and shallow. No one knew me. I didn’t have a shared history with anyone. I believed that time was the only thing that could change that.
As I grew weary of the surface-level relationships that surrounded me, God sent me encouragement. One day, I was standing in the hallway of my hostel, talking with several other foreign students. One of the local students from downstairs joined us, welcoming us to the university. As the others fell away, it ended up being the local student, myself, and one other. As we prepared to part ways, the local student paused to look at me and said, “You’re different than the others. Your Spirit is different. You’re a Christian, aren’t you?”
Finding this fellow Christian was an answer to my desperate need for a Christian connection in a foreign place. I was convinced that time and a shared history were the only things that could deepen relationships, when in reality, Christians have an instant deep connection with anyone who also testifies that Jesus is Lord.
Soon after this, I found a Church home (after weeks and weeks of searching), and I also agreed to attend a 5 a.m. Bible study that I had been avoiding. I didn’t always understand all of what was being said in the study, or at church, and I rarely knew the words to sing the songs. But I listened. I listened to fellow Christians praise God, and speak about His mighty power. And I knew that the very Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, was alive in those around me (Romans 8:11).
I found comfort in the very presence of my international Christian community, because God was with them, just as He was with my Christian community back home. When we fellowship with other Christians, we have an automatic deep connection, since we are all children of the same God, living with the same Holy Spirit inside of us.
3. Spend Time Getting to Know New People
In addition to seeking out a Christian community, I also started digging deeper in my relationships with unbelievers. I started asking more questions, listening, and taking a lot of time to communicate thoroughly with people who didn’t understand me.
In doing this, I unearthed that one of my new friends had very settled (and offensive) assumptions about Americans. This included an assumption that all American women are apt to sleep around with various men, drink a lot, and party irresponsibly. His assumptions doubled as accusations, and responding to them with patience was difficult. We took the time to talk through these assumptions, and I found it was a platform for me to testify to God’s call for all Christians (including American women), to set their minds on what is pure and good and right, and to act in accordance with that mindset (Philippians 4:8).
This conversation, along with several other significant culturally complicated ones, taught me that wading through cultural assumptions and bad reputations is not easy. However, if I commit time and effort to really get to know someone, even when there are difficult barriers to overcome, everyone involved can come out of it with a better and more accurate understanding of each other, as was the case with me and the friend with settled assumptions of American women.
4. Remember Who Helps You
During my time in Ghana, God revealed that my dependency on my Christian community back home had grown to be unhealthy. I was counting solely on my community for growth, direction and comfort, instead of relying on God for my every need. When I faced spiritual obstacles in this new place, like feeling distant from God, God was the only consistent person to bring those thoughts and fears to.
It exposed a sinful preference of mine to take my concerns to fellow broken Christians before laying them at the feet of our holy and perfect God. Now, I always try to remember that counsel from God-fearing Christians is good, but it is not a substitute for going directly to the Father with all of my needs.
My time in Ghana was challenging, and I often was exhausted by the effort it took to do something as simple as have conversation, or find a church. Even so, that semester was one of the best times of my life.
After four short months, I returned home to finish my degree and graduate. I think that being physically present was vital to sustaining my new friendships, so it was difficult to keep them up across the world. Five years later, most of the relationships that I gained that semester have faded. What never faded and continues to shape my perspective today is what God taught me through all of it.
Now, even years after my brief semester abroad, I am constantly challenged to be present, and to be active and engaged where I am, instead of getting wrapped up in wishing for something or someplace else. I still prioritize finding a Christian community wherever I go, and I hold tight to a commitment to good communication.
God also continues to remind me that He alone sustains me. Without God’s Spirit working directly in me, no community, no person, and no Bible study will sustain my faith.