Studying Abroad

“The eyes of the LORD are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.” Proverbs 15:3

The number of Zambians going for studies abroad has increased phenomenally over the last few years. Several years ago, there were very few people who went overseas for their tertiary education. These would either be the privileged few who were awarded scholarships by the bursaries committee; or were sponsored by the ruling and only political party in the country then, the United National Independence Party (UNIP), thanks to the eastern bloc socialist countries which were our close allies. Several others were sponsored by the copper mining conglomerate, the Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM) after they had completed their A-level studies at Mpelembe Secondary School.

But of late, we have seen a very sharp rise in the number of young Zambians enrolling in colleges and Universities outside the country. Most of these students are being sponsored by their own parents and guardians. A random search on, reveals that there are thousands of Grade 12 school leavers from across the country who are currently studying abroad. A good number of foreign universities have recognised this development and have been placing their adverts in our newspapers and on Television stations to woo potential Zambian students. Other universities have even opened branches in Zambia which provide bridging courses before the students end up in these foreign universities. The preferred destinations for most students have been Australia, England, the United States of America, South Africa and Namibia.

When I was studying in the USA, I knew of no less than a dozen young Zambians who were also studying in the same state where I was, and all but one were sponsored by their parents or guardians. What has brought about this sudden rise in the number of Zambians studying abroad? Well, several factors. First, some parents can afford to send their children to these foreign universities, so the question of cost is no longer an inhibiting factor. Second, depending on the country you go to, and the laws which apply to employment, students can take a part-time job and partly finance their own training. This may not be easily workable in Zambia.
Third, the constant closures of our two major government owned universities forces some who have the means to look elsewhere where they are guaranteed that they would go through training without interruptions. These closures in Zambia are almost predictable every academic year! Others prefer foreign universities because their preferred programme of study may not be available locally, or they think the standards of tertiary education in Zambia have been going down.

I have decided to write on this subject to share some thoughts with my fellow Zambians who intend to cross borders and seas for studies, and those who are already there. It’s also intended to give parents something to latch onto as they consider sending their children hundreds and thousands of kilometres away from home. Writing as a Christian and a pastor, these thoughts are mainly intended for those who are Christians. I will talk about the advantages of studying abroad, then look at some disadvantages, and conclude with some useful advice.

I. Advantages of Studying Abroad
There are several advantages in studying abroad. The following is by no means an exhaustive list.

1. If you end up in a country where they speak a language other than the one(s) you know, this can provide you with an opportunity to learn a new language. You're surrounded by people who speak that language on a daily basis and are seeing and hearing it in the proper cultural context. Language learning happens most quickly under these circumstances. Those who studied or are studying in say the Netherlands or Sweden will attest to this.

2. It provides you with great opportunities to witness for Christ. You might find yourself to be the only Christian in your class, and this puts a great challenge upon you to be “light and salt” before the lost sinners. It also puts your Christianity under considerable test, and you will be able to discover certain weaknesses in yourself that would have remained hidden while cloistered among friends, parents and church elders back home.

3. It provides you with immense opportunities for travel. Weekends and academic breaks allow you to venture out and explore your surroundings - both your immediate and more distant surroundings. You are much closer to places you might otherwise not have had the opportunity to visit.

4. It allows you the chance to get to know another culture first-hand. Cultural differences are more than just differences in language, food, appearances, and personal habits. A person's culture reflects very deep perceptions, beliefs, and values that influence his or her way of life and the way that he or she views the world. If you experience cultural differences personally away from home, you begin to truly understand and appreciate where other cultures are coming from.

5. It helps you to develop skills and give you experiences a classroom setting alone will never provide. Being immersed in an entirely new cultural setting is scary at first, but it can also be exciting and challenging. You will have the opportunity to discover new strengths and abilities, conquer new challenges, and solve new problems as they arise. You will encounter situations that are wholly unfamiliar to you and you have to make quick and immediate decisions far away from home. In this way, you learn to adapt and respond in ways that are God glorifying and personally enriching.

6. You are also afforded the opportunity to make friends from around the world. You will meet not only the natives of the culture in which you are studying, but also other international students who are as far from home as yourself.

7. It helps you to learn about yourself. Students who study abroad return home with new ideas and perspectives about themselves and their own culture. The experience abroad often challenges them to reconsider their own values and systems. The experience may perhaps strengthen those values or it may cause students to alter or abandon them and embrace new concepts and perceptions. The encounter with other cultures enables students to see their own culture through new eyes. One thing I appreciated about Americans is their servant spirit and readiness to say thank you. This is not just Christians doing so, but even non-Christians. A manager in an institution does not just spend time in the office oblivious of what is happening outside. Once in a while they deliberately venture outside and are willing to lend a hand to a customer, even if that task is beneath their status. I would love to see that in Zambian bosses. Can a Zambian bank manager wipe the wet floor when a client’s toddler spills juice or ice-cream? I saw that in the USA on many occasions. That is a humble servant spirit.

8. Studying abroad also expands your worldview and makes you have a balanced (and I should say Biblical) instead of a prejudiced perspective toward other cultures and peoples.

9. Universities in the developed countries have better facilities and their libraries are well stocked with latest volumes of academic textbooks. Your knowledge of current trends in your profession will be broader and deeper.

10. It enhances employment opportunities if you feel called to work in another country. Apart from the current economic crunch and its attendant effects on levels of employment, the opportunities for skilled labour in other countries are far higher than in Zambia.

11. At a human level, it enhances the value of your degree. Not that our own local qualifications are less in value, but ask any academician, he will tell you that there are gradations in learning intuitions. The Oxford University or Harvard is not in the same league as the University of Sesheke! Do you catch the irony? Anyway, as Christians, our worth is not derived from these external marks of prestige.


In spite of all the advantages we have looked at, we must not assume that there is no downside to studying abroad. Here are some for you to mull over:

1. It takes some time to adjust to the new surroundings and culture while living in a foreign country. And this can have a significant toll on your emotions, and even physical wellbeing.

2. You will say goodbye to everything so dear to you at home – your family, friends and the style of life you have led for so many years. You may probably feel sad about this and it may take a while for you to come to terms with the fact.

3. Depending on the number of foreign/international students in your university, being in the minority you are going to be watched and pointed out constantly. Your accent will betray you much of the time, and if you are a sensitive type person, this can prove unnerving.

4. If you are in a country much more developed than your own, the locals may taunt you or ask you questions about your country which may be very irritating and frustrating. Others may assume you are less knowledgeable because you are coming from the “third world.” As a Christian, you just have to marshal your spiritual energy and control your emotions. Sometimes, these questions may be sincere because of ignorance or because of the media’s distorted image about Africa in general.

5. Falling sick can be a very emotionally draining and depressing thing, not to mention that it can cost you an arm and a leg if you are in the USA. The usual social networks that are a source of encouragement and support back home may not be readily available. If you are so sick that you can’t even attend class, don’t be surprised if hardly anyone notices your absence from class.

6. Feelings of loneliness are not uncommon. You also feel sad that you cannot be there to physically share in the joys and sorrows of significant events in the family and among your friends, e.g. birthdays, weddings, illnesses, bereavements.

7. You are exposed to greater temptations, and the absence of parents, strong accountable friendships and a home church deprives you of the usual normal restraints back home. Many Christians have made a shipwreck of their faith while abroad and not a few marriages have been irreparably damaged. I always point young people to the testimony of the three Jewish young men forcibly taken from Jerusalem and enrolled in the University of Babylon. They had before them all the trappings of success, but were also under constant pressure to forget their God. They refused to compromise and maintained their integrity at great personal cost (Read Daniel 1).

Some Useful Advice

Let me end by leaving you some piece of advice. Let me warn you not to underestimate the emotional power of cultural shock. You may experience mood swings alternating between emotion of exhilaration or elation and mild depression. In the early weeks, you will probably feel excited about your new experiences and environment. Soon, you may find the excitement of new surroundings and sensations increasingly replaced by frustration with how different things are from home. This is called Culture Shock. This is considered a natural (and perhaps even essential) part of adjusting to a foreign culture. Symptoms can include depression, sleeping difficulties, homesickness, trouble concentrating, an urge to isolate yourself, and irritation with your host culture.

As you begin to settle down, a number of things might be helpful to miminise the culture shock:
• Learn as much as you can from local residents about their culture.
• Keep in touch with other Zambian students. It can sometimes be helpful to meet with them and share experiences.
• When you feel low, keep yourself busy doing legitimate and God honouring things you enjoy.
• Keep in touch with your family and friends back home. Letters, phone calls, Text Messages, or e-mails will make you feel less isolated. There are several cheap ways of communicating, like Skype, VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol), to mention a few.
• Don’t forget to take pictures and contact information of the people dear to you.
• Try to keep your long-range goals in mind. Experiencing a new culture will inevitably involve some frustration and feelings of loneliness as you leave the familiar and incorporate the new, but they don't last forever.
• Since there is almost no way to avoid culture shock completely, you should try to accept it as something everyone goes through. Keep in mind that students returning from study abroad often describe working their way through culture shock as a necessary maturing experience; something that provided insight into their own cultural assumptions. You can ease your transition by recognizing the factors that cause culture shock and taking steps to minimize them.
On the spiritual front, I would encourage you to find a sound biblical church where your soul will be constantly nourished. Using the Internet, you can actually begin to search for a good church near your university long before you leave. Consult your pastor in case there are some churches he may recommend.

Once you find a local church, get involved in its life. Inform your elders back home of the church you are attending, and put them in touch with the elders of your new church. Build strong accountable relationships with Christian friends both at school and at church. Do not allow the common excuse of academic pressure to starve your soul of spiritual food, without which you can easily backslide. Maintain contact with your elders in your home church. Unless you choose to resign from membership, you are still accountable to your home church. Don’t keep your parents in the dark about any significant developments in your life.

REMEMBER, you are never a breath away from the vigilant and ever watchful eye of our omniscient and omnipresent God. “The eyes of the LORD are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.” This great truth of God’s omnipresence is of great use to enforce the precepts of morality.


  1. Thanks Isaac, for these insightful words of counsel. I have just sent the link to a young lady who is presently working towards studying abroad. I am sure she will appreciate the counsel!

    Perhaps next time you may want to also talk about the frustration of reverse cultural shock as yet another challenge. I guess you must be experiencing it right now!

  2. This is precisely what I had in mind pastor, and it is my prayer that this feeble effort will prove true the saying that "forewarned is forearmed." The challenges of studying abroad are enormous.

    I plan to do a follow-up post on reverse cultural shock. I am praying for wisdom, that I might present this in such a way that I am not misunderstood. We have had quite an experience of this reverse cultural shock!

  3. Just four quick additions on what Isaac has written:
    1.The cold and wet weather that generally obtains in some of the countries abroad can also be a source of depression especially when one is used to our lovely weather is Zambia.
    2. I found it easier to make friends with fellow international students than with the locals.
    3.Another challenge one needs to be ready for is to be quick to learn how to operate technological cadges like laundry machines or else you will return home never having washed your clothes! If you are not sure about how a particular item works, ask and there will be people to help you.
    4.Budget skills are also tested. It is very tempting to keep shopping especially when items are reduced to half the original price during clearance sales.

  4. Thank you very much Pastor for these words pointing us all to the real realities of being out there not just for studies but even for work. I think for most of us parents and indeed children we are moved more with the so called wonderful expectations out there in terms of what we think is easy life only to get shocked when one finally gets to the realities of their new environment which comes out, among other aspects of it, just as you have pointed out in your article. Best to go bearing in mind what to expect and gearing oneself for all that may come your way. Church life may also be very different from what one is used to but is always invaluable. As a matter of fact, best to start finding one or two before departure.

    Joseph Taguma