The Rough Parts of Studying Abroad

I think the biggest lie about studying abroad is that it will be the best few months of your life. I feel a little guilty for saying this, but I don’t think it was the best three months of my life. I definitely made the right decision to go, and it provided a new perspective on the world I couldn’t have achieved through any amount of reading or studying.  If I had to describe my experience abroad in one word it would be “lonely.” I think a lot of students experience this loneliness but no one talks about it.

I spent the first half of the semester grappling with culture shock, and by the second half, seasonal depression was kicking my ass. As I entered the second half of the semester, I felt like a complete failure. I hadn’t been to Liverpool or the Tower of London or Stonehenge or the continent. There were a few times where I would be sitting in my homestay’s house, surrounded by unfamiliar brands and media feeling like I was on a different planet because nothing was the same. I felt so low every single day that I couldn’t get out of bed. I went two months with hardly any social interaction and spent my time studying and watching a lot of Netflix. I ate the same chicken sandwiches after school every single day because they were comforting and I wanted to do anything to feel better. I knew I was wasting my time here and that made me feel worse and worse.

I didn’t have much money for the entire three months. It was hard enough to get enough money together to even go, so once I arrived I couldn’t afford to travel on the weekends. I didn’t go to the continent and spent the entire time in Great Britain. Every Monday my professor would ask what everyone did over the weekend and after everyone had shared their trips to Rome and Paris and Stockholm I had to explain why I didn’t (couldn’t) leave the city. I was constantly embarrassed because I wasn’t having the wonderful life changing, globe-trotting study abroad experience I was supposed to be having. I wasn’t eating at new restaurants every night, or clubbing every weekend, or ticking off every tourist attraction. In retrospect, the biggest deterrent to traveling was that I didn’t know how to travel. This was my first time ever outside the United States and my first time on my own. I didn’t know how to find hostels or how to pack properly and that led to some disappointing and poorly planned weekend trips. I did learn, but it took time.

Being unbearably shy, I also didn’t grow close to any classmates while I was here. I am older than almost all of them and it is hard to connect with people who can’t legally drink or smoke at home. It is totally understandable and even expected for people to go a little wild when they’re on their own for the first time and can legally go to bars. That is just not where I am anymore. Even when I would make efforts to go out with them they made it very clear that I wasn’t a part of their “group” and I really didn’t want to deal with people who felt they needed a solidified clique of friends. I never really felt a sense of belonging here and that was rough.

There were many times where I wished desperately to be back home or at least around people I knew. There were multiple nights where I had to keep my head down while trying to ignore the drunken man on the tube attacking me with a slew of racist insults. I couldn’t tell him to knock it off because my homestay family warned me many times not to say anything because if it escalated, no one would intervene to help me. It sucked to occasionally run into people who hate Americans and aren’t afraid to tell you exactly how they feel. Thanks to the election there were also strangers who told me I couldn’t go back to America because I’m Mexican and Donald Trump wouldn’t let me in (how messed up was this election that a Hungarian guy said this to me!), and strangers who told me that our election was proof that all Americans are idiots.

To cope with all of this I did a lot of spiritual searching. I meditated every single day, read positive books, learned how to read an oracle deck, bought a singing bowl, took a photograph of my aura, and learned new rituals for getting focused. I think that is where the most personal growth came from. All the problems I had, I brought with me. London didn’t cause them because they already existed. At home I was unfocused and shy and often lonely. Here I had to confront that. I am a creature of habit and it took a lot of inner strength to intentionally put myself in an extremely stressful environment but I’m glad I did. When you’re forced to adapt, you do.

It is important to remember that solitude is not a bad thing. Many, many bloggers have written about the virtues of solo travel for good reason. There were certain points where I felt empowered by being alone. I could go wherever I wanted. I could eat where and what I wanted. I didn’t have to go somewhere if I really wasn’t that interested. I didn’t have to ever compromise! I grew up with three siblings and am in a long term relationship, so not having to negotiate everything was liberating. I really didn’t hit my stride until the last two weeks of the semester. I really felt this empowerment during my last weekend in Liverpool. I stayed in a great hostel, ticked a bunch of things off my to-see list. It was awesome roaming around the city shopping for Christmas gifts and bar hopping on Matthew Street (and getting a little swept up in Beatlemania). I had finally adjusted to the light switches going the opposite way, or the doors that open inward, or the strange smells that occasionally occur on the tube. It felt so good to finally go out into a foreign country and think, “I can handle this. I feel at home here.”

Whether you have a social experience or a solo journey you’re not going to come back the same person. At the beginning I resisted this. I thought, “I’m proud of myself and my country! I am just here as a tourist!” but I inevitably succumbed to the postmodernism London had to offer. I thought I was set in my ways and my beliefs only to come here and question my entire world view. I found I am much more adaptable than I give myself credit for and I found independence I didn’t know I had. I learned to relish being alone rather than fearing it.

One of my favorite pictures of me being a #strong #independent #woman

Everything they say about studying abroad changing you is true. It’s a cliché for a reason – it will change you for good.

Check out my other posts from my semester in London!

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  • Such a lovely post.
    I first went to study abroad in Finland (from Nepal) five years ago, and it has completely changed my life! I went to do 4 year Bachelor’s program but I’ve since stayed after the degree completion, although not in Finland but Poland. So many things happened and I am a whole different person now than I used to be. When you live alone in a foreign country, you automatically learn a lot of different practical that you otherwise wouldn’t have. It’s also a great way to know yourself. Homesickness is real but for me the pros of living abroad alone, especially in my youth years, outweighs that.
    I’m glad that you’re enjoying and getting to know yourself. And I’m sorry that the Hungarian guy made such an ignorant remark.. I am sure it wasn’t so easy being an American abroad at the time when the whole world was laughing at the election frenzy in the US.

    • Thankfully those negative interactions in public were rare. I think they just hurt more because they happened when I first arrived and was still struggling to adjust.

      Before I left I had serious doubts about traveling. I knew it was something I should do if I wanted to study politics, but I never had the travel bug. Now that I’m about to head home I think I caught it while being here. Actually traveling is incomparable to reading about it.