During my first jet-lagged night in Bangkok, I stayed up frantically writing emails to my friends. Did I make the right choice? What have I gotten myself into?
I had been brave enough to make the decision to go abroad for the long term, but had been so busy planning for my sabbatical that the magnitude of my decision didn’t actually hit me until I arrived.
When you’ve done all your research and planning and you’re finally ready to start your sabbatical adventure, you might come to a point where all you can think is, “Now what?” It can be tough to know where to begin and how to start adjusting; believe me—I’ve been there! But I’ve also learned how to get through it and maximize my experience abroad.
So whether you’ll be on the road, traveling through different countries for the long haul, or settling down to start a life in a new place, here are my tips for making the most of your sabbatical.
You may want to dive headfirst into your adventures, but it’s important to get settled and establish a home base before anything else. Whether it’s just temporary accommodations or a particular city you feel comfortable in, establish a space that really feels like yours; where you can return to if you need. You’ll be going through a lot of adjustments during your first two weeks away, so having a familiar foundation or a home base can make it a lot easier.
Beyond your physical location, establish small routines to give you some grounding, like checking your email at the same time each day or taking a jog every morning. Keeping certain tasks consistent can help you stay focused and efficient, and establishing some familiarity can help lessen the shock of such a big change.
Giving yourself time to get settled into your new pace—whether that’s lots of touring or staying in one spot and living like a local—can make your transition to long-term travel a little easier.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
A common travelers’ mantra is “get out of your comfort zone”—but for a lot of my friends, simply leaving their host city is as much out of their comfort zone as they want to get.
I often remind them that venturing outside of the familiar can be subjective for each person and his or her experience. For some, it may be taking on a new set of tasks in a volunteer role abroad; for others, it could be something completely unique, like trying new foods or practicing conversation at the local markets.
Keep in mind, though, venturing out doesn’t have to be totally freaky or adventurous; you don’t have to climb mountains or eat insects to earn your way into some fancy travel club—you simply have to be curious and have a will to explore.
And it’s OK if you want to stay in comfortable settings or hang out with people from your home country at first. Travel is about learning and testing yourself, but you don’t have to transform your whole identity. In fact, taking small steps out of your comfort zone each day is a great way to build that foundation for those bigger risks you want to take later on. (I recommend the blog “Unbrave Girl” for great ideas about how to step out of your comfort zone, even if it’s a little intimidating!)
Manage Your Time
Traveling for more than six months can seem like an enormous amount of time, but when you’re on the road, it actually can go by really fast.
With that, there are two common things that can happen over the course of your journey. You may start to feel homesick, which is common and completely normal. People often start to miss certain things, like familiar foods (e.g., peanut butter, cheese, or food without chiles in it), or long for home and the familiar. Some develop a fear that they’re missing out on special moments, birthdays, and friendships back home.
To combat this, treat yourself to a few familiar things at the grocery store to remind you of home, go to the restaurant that serves the meal you love, write thoughtful emails to friends back home, or take the time to schedule Skype conversations.
The other feeling I’ve experienced is called “the travelers’ plateau”—when things abroad start to seem like the routine, daily grind. For me, going to my favorite noodle stall each day for lunch became a ritual. It wasn’t that I wanted to stop trying new things, but it was convenient, I knew what to expect, and I became close friends with the owners. It made me feel somewhat like local—but it also hindered my exploration.
It can take effect in other ways, too. Your favorite thing about the culture may now seem frustrating, or you may start counting down the days until you return home. It no longer feels like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but a real challenge.
You can avoid this by making sure you always have things to look forward to, like dinner with new friends or a trip outside your host community. Time will fly by (and occasionally drag on) so make sure you keep a positive perspective and realize that during the most difficult parts of your sabbatical are when you’ll probably learn the most.
Document the Journey
Use your time abroad to share what you’re learning and document the journey for others back home via social media. This will not only help you maintain your connections back home (letting your friends and family know where and how you are), but it will also give you the opportunity to reflect on and contextualize your experiences.
You don’t have to plaster your journey on every single social media platform (you’d probably be so busy updating your social media accounts that you wouldn’t have time to enjoy what’s in front of you!), but consider what works best for you. Depending on where you’re traveling and how much free time you’ll have, think about whether writing a blog, using Twitter, or sharing photos via Instagram would be valuable for your journey. If you do it well and keep up with it, it may even be something you could consider monetizing or using for your portfolio later on.
Recognize the Experiences That Are Relevant to Your Career
Venturing into a tiger pit to get your picture taken is probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but may not fall under the “career experience” category.
As you are traveling (while you’re living it up and enjoying yourself, of course), try to identify experiences that utilize your skills, help you master new ones, and offer something unique to future employers and colleagues. For example, one of my friends is learning to build a “tiny house” as part of her sabbatical, and another is visiting meditation centers to help complete her PhD research.
You may also find some opportunities that are more obviously relevant to your career, like attending lectures, volunteering, or lending your skills to a project team. Perhaps you have the opportunity to teach something beyond language (e.g., a skill like coding) or lead a training on fundraising and development, website design, or event coordination. These experiences both benefit your local community and add to your portfolio back home.
Of course, some of my colleagues simply use their sabbatical experiences to decide what they’re going to do when they return home—and that’s great, too. Consider how this experience will make you a better professional later on, notate those situations, and learn how to talk about international experiences in a way that can help your career.
Return Home, Keep Exploring
You will definitely want to live in the moment during your sabbatical, but you should also start considering ways to plan for your return home. Whether you want to apply to certain positions or just come up with a clearer idea of what you want to do with your life, it’s important to think about your plan for reintegration to the working world.
This should include a plan to deal with reverse culture shock, reconnecting with friends and relatives, and setting up a new life back home. And who knows? Along the way, what you consider “home” might change, or you may decide you want to extend your sabbatical and launch a career in your new place. The key is to stay open and recognize that the experiences you have in the field will be most valuable when you apply them to real life—whatever that means for you.
After my sabbatical, I was able to clearly look back on the opportunity as accomplishing what I had always dreamed of; one that allowed me to both conduct research and learn more about myself than I ever expected. It helped me appreciate both my life in my home country and the excitement of traveling, too.
Upon your return, keep that same sense of discovery that you had during your time off, and it will offer you insight and opportunities that make your work back home that much richer.
Photo of woman on beach courtesy of Shutterstock.
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author