You Need Help: Taking the Leap to Study Abroad

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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 Portlandand 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.

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