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Thursday, May 30, 2024

When studying abroad isn’t everything and more

Rediscovering a sense of control, stability while abroad

Less than an hour after I got to London, I hid in a stall in the airport bathroom and had a panic attack. Being out of the U.S. for the first time and feeling tired and grimy and homesick was, of course, emotionally draining. But what I was unable to cope with was the feeling that being abroad — the unrivalled dream I had worked to make a reality for several years — was nothing like how it was supposed to be.

I have a very vivid memory of a talk I had with my mom during my senior year of high school. At a time when I was uncertain what I wanted to study or where I wanted to study it, I swore I wouldn’t graduate college without studying abroad. I’m an indecisive person — at times, painfully and debilitatingly so — but the choice to study abroad was always one I had full faith and confidence in.

At dinner that first night, people in my program began making plans to travel to other countries over the first weekend. Almost everyone, it seemed, had extensive experience traveling in other countries. I had never been outside of the U.S. before, so I couldn’t wrap my head around it — I didn’t want to think about venturing out of my new neighborhood, let alone the U.K.

While bombarding my very caring boyfriend with an excess of worries over the phone, he gently pointed out that I shouldn’t and couldn’t make my experiences identical to everyone else’s.

There’s an extreme pressure in a scenario such as this to want to conform — we’re out of our comfort zones in every way and we only have strangers to depend upon for immediate comfort. Yet it’s a futile idea to believe that every experience abroad should be or will be the same. I quickly discovered that it was just silly to feel compelled to completely absorb the group mentality when my priorities were, at times, very different from those around me.

I also realized that being abroad wasn’t everything I expected it to be and more, because I expected it to be everything. The fact of the matter is that I idealized the experience so extremely so as to put myself at a disadvantage — when I arrived and saw that the places and city and the experience I had idolized were real and flawed and different than how I had imagined, I spun myself into a state of overwhelming, impending-sense-of-doom type misery and anxiety.

Since those first few especially rough days, I’ve had other breakthrough moments: on the first day of a class I’m taking on British museums, my professor highlighted our upcoming field trips and I found myself excited for the future of the program for the first time. At orientation, our advisors emphasized the counseling services available to us, and even knowing that was an option was a huge help. And eventually, other people in my program expressed my same worries, and I realized I was not alone.

This isn’t to say my experience now, two weeks in, is completely enjoyable — there are still moments of discomfort and extreme homesickness. The program has, however, forced me to assess my relationships at home. And for this perspective, I am eternally grateful, because I realize just how many support systems I have to depend upon.

A friend of mine who was worried about me after I sent a particularly cryptic text message offered wisdom I greatly benefitted from. He pointed out that being totally out of my elements and forced to abide by a rigid schedule challenged my agency, and as a person who values my independence, it would be important to regain a sense of control.

I took this insight to heart. During my first free morning, I ventured outside my apartment to a cafe one block away and bought myself breakfast. The first weekend, I explored the neighborhood by myself. And the second week, I successfully navigated the local transit system and got myself to the Tate Modern and back alone. Being able to do things on my own gave me an important and valued sense of stability.

I received and pursued other pieces of really great advice from others: the first few days, I packed my schedule so I had less free time to think about home and returned to my apartment exhausted and ready to sleep; I took the first week not only one day at a time, but one hour at a time; I crossed days off my calendar; I did activities I knew would put me at ease and I stayed connected to my friends at home while making a genuine effort to connect with people in my program.

Through this recounting, I hope not to inspire sympathy — I don’t want nor need it. I recognize that I’m incredibly privileged to be able to study abroad and for that reason feeling sad for myself was infuriating. Nonetheless, the experience forced me to sink or swim.

With every passing day, I feel a bit more comfortable. This is, for a number of reasons, in large part thanks to the support and selfless kindness from both my friends and loved ones at home and my lovely new friends in London who are also trying their best to figure out every new day.

Written by: Hannah Holzer — hrholzer@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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