COLUMN: The Trials And Travails Of Abroad

As a senior who studied abroad in the spring of last year, I am reaching that point of the semester where I am starting to feel nostalgic for my time abroad, and with that nostalgia comes a memory of the anticipation and nervousness I felt around this time just a year ago. Facing the prospect of a semester abroad in China with limited knowledge of the culture and absolutely no knowledge of Mandarin, my anxiety-filled, junior-year self desperately sought advice anywhere she could find it. So for any of you juniors who are currently preparing for a semester abroad-especially those of you who are preparing for a semester in a country that primarily speaks a language other than English- and are feeling a bit nervous about it, this is for you:

Despite all of the fantastic things you hear from your friends, family, teachers, study abroad coordinators, Facebook, etc. about it, studying abroad will initially be anything but simple. You’ll get to your new country after likely having spent half a day or more traveling, disoriented and not quite knowing exactly where you are or what day it is. To add insult to injury, you’ll exit the airport and quickly realize that you are surrounded by road signs that either you can’t read or which point to things that have absolutely no meaning to you. Moreover, your program will likely force you to meet a group of your classmates almost immediately upon arrival, and, although you are exhausted, gross, and not at all in the mood to make friends, you will attempt to socialize since you are aware somewhere in the back of your mind that you’re completely terrified of winding up totally alone in a foreign country for five months.

Things probably won’t get easier that first week. In fact, you’ll likely spend your first two weeks fighting off a jet lag that won’t go away no matter how hard you try to regulate your sleeping patterns. You will wake up at all hours of the night for no apparent reason and will not be able to sleep in to save your life. Moreover, if you are one of the brave souls going to a country whose language you either don’t or barely speak, you will spend those first two weeks realizing how frightening it is to be completely intimidated by every conversation around you. You will be afraid to do anything on your own and will begin to rely on the buddy system like you never have before. Ordering every meal will be an adventure, and you will accustom yourself to the fact that the natives will probably laugh at you, no matter how well you think you’re conveying your point.

Yet, during these first few weeks, your spirit will manage to stay lifted thanks to the knowledge that, despite everything that’s tough, you’re in another country. All kinds of adventures will be yours for the finding, and, once you realize this, you will start looking for them. You will get on the subway (or take the metro, or rent a cab, or however you get around in your country) and explore random sections of your city, stumbling across thousands of years of history no matter where you go.

Suddenly, the little quirks about your city that initially intimidated you won’t seem so bad. For instance, if you happen to be in my shoes and you choose to study abroad in China, you will quickly learn that you should invest in some long underwear and a face mask, and it will be a fun adventure for you and your new friends to go attempt to buy these things. You’ll figure out how to log into the Internet, message your friends back home, and start putting pictures on Facebook. You’ll visit the Forbidden City, the Eiffel Tower, the Sagrada Familia, the Coliseum, the Great Pyramids-whatever your city has to offer.  You’ll dare to speak briefly with some locals. You’ll eat delicious food. You’ll prioritize every experience above homework. You’ll spend every hour you can finding a new adventure. You’ll smile when you wake up in the morning. You’ll go to bed excited for the next day. You’ll fall into a routine. Time will go on and, before you know it, you will find yourself creeping through your own Facebook pictures, in complete awe of the surreal life you’ve been living.

Then, all of the sudden, you’ll find yourself sitting outside in a foreign, once-terrifying city with your new friends eating lunch in the spring sunshine and you realize something startling-You’ve done it.

You’re ordering food on your own. Yes, your friends are there, but you don’t need their help getting your point across. You’re walking around alone during the day and feeling completely comfortable by yourself. You know how to recharge your phone card, where you can find the best food for the lowest price, and which places offer the best free Internet connection. You have started using local terminology to express your frustration or your joy. You enjoy your foreign language classes. You have made friends you’ll never forget. You don’t desperately miss the familiarity of home anymore-in fact, you’re happier than you’ve been in a long time.

Then, once you’ve realized how far you’ve come, you’ll realize something even more surprising and even more wonderful-namely, that you feel strong. It’s like you know there’s nothing you can’t do now, because, despite what people might tell you, you know that nothing is ever going to be scarier than taking on a new country feeling completely alone. You may not want to leave, but as sappy as it sounds, you know you’re ready because your abroad country-the experiences you’ve had, the lessons you learned, the friends you’ve made, and the new perspective you’ve inevitably gained-will be a part of who you are from here on out, and that achievement is worth all of the fear, helplessness, frustration, and persistence it took to get there.

Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.