My “Study Abroad” Experience, Deconstructed

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“AIFS is recognized as a leading provider of study abroad programs. Since 1964, over 1.5 million students have traveled abroad with AIFS. With more than 50 years of experience, we have the resources and experience to provide what our students want and need in a study abroad program, and to safeguard their welfare around the globe.” This was the AIFS study abroad provider description which attracted me during my quest to find the perfect study abroad program. As a junior at Plymouth State University halfway into my Spring 2014 semester, I was behind the eight-ball. I had to choose a program and a provider ASAP, or I would miss the boat, literally, and would miss the last chance I had to study abroad during my undergraduate career. On this note, I stumbled upon AIFS’s website, read this “value” statement, submitted an application online, and hoped that my tardy efforts weren’t in vain.

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During my middle school years, I became fascinated with geography and embarked on a quest to educate myself about the different cultures of the world. I read every book on foreign culture I could get my hands on, and when I’d read every book the library had to offer, I took to the internet to quench my thirst for knowledge. I would barricade myself in my room after school, and mentally transport myself from my suburban New Hampshire home. My parents grew concerned, chastising me for living in a “fantasy” world and urging me to focus on reality. I ignored their pleas, and by the time I was in eighth grade, I began to devise schemes that would allow me to satisfy my youthful wanderlust. I began to look into high school study abroad programs, and even created an entire PowerPoint presentation to pitch the idea to my parents-though impressed with my ambition, my parents didn’t take to the idea of their daughter living abroad in a foreign country as a minor. I was forced to swallow my pride in the end, and accept their offer to let me participate in a college abroad program one day. It’s a good thing too-I barely possessed the maturity to handle studying abroad as a twenty-two year-old college senior, let alone a fifteen-year-old high school freshman.

Interior stairway of the university I attended, Autonomous University of Barcelona, Sant Pau campus.
Interior stairway of the university I attended, Autonomous University of Barcelona, Sant Pau campus.

I thought I had prepared myself for my abroad experience. Foolishly, I convinced myself that I’d be able to handle anything and everything Fate chose to toss my way. Travel rule number one-something can and will ALWAYS go wrong, and you better find a way to adapt when it does. Throughout my high-school and college years, I maintained the same wide-eyed naive perception in regards to travel and living abroad that I had forged in middle school. I was sure that my abroad experience would be one for the books, picture perfect in every way, and would change my outlook on life for the better. The college “study abroad experience” has been hyped up for decades, advertised as “the greatest experience of your college career” and the like. If you’re reading this, you’re either interested in pursing a study abroad experience of your own, or have studied abroad experience already under your belt, and are still, in the aftermath, trying to make sense of it all (like myself). Perhaps the ultimate question, and fear, regarding study abroad which most students, including myself, have (or had) prior to delving headfirst into an abroad program, is, “how will uprooting myself from everything and everyone familiar and comforting in my life to move to a strange foreign country, benefit my life?” I have had friends ask me why I chose to take off for a semester during my senior year of school-surely I should have been afraid of “missing out?” To a degree, I was-however, I feared regret more. 

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It takes a lot for a college kid to abandon familiarity. Familiarity which we all take for granted, yet ache and yearn for when it ceases to be an option at all. Looking back, I’m guilty of taking my college circumstances for granted-living within a close proximity to friends and family, not having to worry about ATM’s up-charging me with foreign transaction fees, knowing that the police are a simple phone call away. I think many college students preparing to embark on an abroad journey fail to take into account these little “practicalities,” and instead get caught up in romantic ideals inspired by the media and pop culture. But when reality hits, it hits hard. There will be a moment, I don’t care who you are, while living abroad, that you will reflect on all the “little” things you take for granted back at home, and will learn to appreciate the hell out of them. Culture shock is not some made-up phenomena which you gloss over in the pre-departure handbook your program mailed to you-it’s all too real, and impossible to prepare for.

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America isn’t known throughout the rest of the world as the land of “convenience” for nothing. Throughout Europe, and especially within the Mediterranean nations, “American convenience” as we understand it, is not a thing. When my plane touched down in the Barcelona El Prat airport on September 3rd, 2014, I was ready to take on the world. Armed with a Europe guidebook and a Spanish dictionary, I was confident and ready to Carpe that Diem! Oh, how foolish, how young, how impressionable, how foolhardy…you get the point. What your study abroad coordinators and advisors won’t tell students, especially prospective students, is that you probably won’t even begin adjusting to life in your chosen country until your last week there. Seriously. During my first four weeks abroad, I had absolutely no clue what was going on. Granted, I lacked a few necessary technological gadgets, such as a smartphone, which made life a little easier for my peers, yet for those first few weeks, I struggled to unearth myself from an avalanche of reality. Though I believe everyone adjusts to “culture-shock” in their own way, during those first few weeks, absolutely nobody is on their A game. And what’s more-you’re pretty much on your own. All of your friends and family are literally thousands of miles away. You have to make fast friends with people in your program and classmates, and hope that they’ll have your back and aren’t dormant sociopaths waiting to exploit you. While struggling to make new friends, you’re also grappling with the public transportation system, trying to memorize the twenty-minute walk from your apartment flat to your foreign campus, and to top it all off, kicking yourself for believing that those years of high school Spanish would magically “come back” to you in an “immersion setting.” Newsflash-rusty high-school language skills don’t play fetch, they pretty much disappear unless you practice them and commit them to memory. And how many of us made flash-cards and studied diligently every night like our professors advised us to? For all of these aforementioned reasons, and countless others, I struggled. I cried. I e-mailed my parents begging to come back home. Disappointment crushed me, the language barrier confused me, the humidity killed me…once again, I was facing regret, by my own hand.

Gaspacho, a Catalan regional specialty
Gaspacho, a Catalan regional specialty

Study-abroad program brochures and admissions staff will have you believe that making friends abroad is a simple task. Surely, many like-minded college students from around the United States will get along famously! Conversation exchanges setup by your program will make it easy to make foreign friends (who won’t try to kidnap you and hold you ransom). Given my natural outgoing personality, I’ve never had trouble making friends in my life. Hence, I never anticipated that I would have problems forging meaningful, life-long friendships with the people I met through my abroad program. I figured that everyone would be as open and friendly as I was, because we’re all in this together, right? I failed to take into consideration that geographically, the United States ranges widely, and naturally, its cultures and ways of life do as well. Where I come from, and within my circle of friends (both in high-school and college) I’ve always been a little quirky and “out there.” And sometimes perceived as being a bit overwhelming to more reserved folk. This however, had never been an issue in my life, for I learned over the years to reign myself in around the latter groups of people, yet never had to much, for I had the option of hanging out and befriending those who shared my interests and were themselves a little “out there.” My college is a state school, infamous for a “partying” reputation we’ve earned over the decades. As a result, many Plymouth State students (namely those who choose to indulge in certain vices) share a camaraderie with one another. Being a small school and an even smaller campus, you always “know somebody” on the street, and many students share an overall welcoming and “non-judgmental” perspective within our college community. Once again, I wrongly assumed that the kids from my abroad program would also share this communal mentality, and embrace me as one of their own. I quickly learned that in comparison with most of my abroad peers, I hailed from the most reckless ilk imaginable, and that me, and everyone like me at my home university, were a band of rowdy alcoholic maniacs. Granted, I shouldn’t have assumed that all thirty-some-odd of my peers hadn’t gotten drunk on their transatlantic flights (I made sure I got my money’s worth of SwissAir’s drink service). Yet, even when I was around my program peers during those first few weeks, I felt odd and out of place. Add that to the culture shock I was experiencing, and I was headed for a mental breakdown.

.89 Euro boxed wine...danger is an understatement
.89 Euro boxed wine…danger is an understatement

My program included housing in the tuition cost, and I’d opted to live in an apartment flat over a host-family home. Being twenty-two, I feared having to live with “parents” all over again, though looking back, I regret not putting more thought into my housing selection. I was placed in a small, but nice flat, along with five other girls. Because I had signed up for the program so late, I missed out on the chance of a single bedroom (of which two girls had opted for) and was stuck in a double bedroom comparable in size to that of a triple dorm room in America. In America, we really take room sizes for granted, because in Europe, a bedroom that’d be considered small in the U.S. is the European standard. The possibility of cramped living conditions was yet another practicality I’d failed to consider, and though it wasn’t the end of the world, it proved challenging at times. And there were only two bathrooms…for six girls…you can guess how that worked out. I got along with my roommates well enough thankfully, yet I lacked a connection with all of them save for one girl, who is the only roommate I’ve remained in contact with since we returned back to the states. My advice for any of you readers considering studying abroad-don’t make the mistake that I made. Don’t confine your group of friends to your roommates and program members. Looking back, although I constantly had to check my behavior and censor my conversation around my roommates (except for that one girl) and program peers, I still chose to hang out with them and take weekend trips with them. Trips which honestly, I could’ve enjoyed more with different friends, or even by myself. Our personalities just didn’t mesh, and I saw the world through a different lens than they did. And that’s totally fine. Not everyone gets along. But I do regret letting this incompatibility hinder my social interactions while abroad. In retrospect, most of the best memories I had when I was around these people had been in solitude, or with random travelers I had met along the way. Unfortunately, I felt bound to my roommates, and relied on them for a lot, which to their credit, they always helped me out with. I’ve never been good with directions, and due to my ADHD, I’m distracted by absolutely everything. Take into account the fact that I lacked a smartphone, or any method of immediate communication (until finally bought a cheap European phone for emergencies) and thus had no idea where I was half the time. I was terrified to venture off into the city on my own until about three weeks into the program, and that was only because by then I’d finally figured out the Metro system, and whenever I got lost, would find a Metro station and figure my way home. Walking around the city however, confused me for months, and I had trouble finding my way anywhere by myself-with my roommates however, they’d Google a walking GPS map to any destination and navigate our group there. If I wanted to go to a specific restaurant, bar, or club-it was always with them. Every time I tried to go anywhere unfamiliar on my own, I’d end up taking the Metro home in defeat. By the end of the program, I could navigate around my neighborhood, walk to campus, find the grocery store, and that’s pretty much it. Though I’m not a huge fan of technology and smartphones in particular, if I could change anything about my abroad experience, having a smartphone over there would be my number one change. So if you’re thinking about going abroad, for the love, bring a smartphone. That way, you can embrace your independence without having to rely on others.

The dining room of my former Barcelona flat, 265 Calle Marina
The dining room of my former Barcelona flat, 265 Calle Marina

By the end of my third month abroad, I’d grown quite disenchanted with the people I surrounded myself with. I resented having to rely on them for so much, and constantly felt like they were doing me a favor by taking pity on my plight. I felt like they viewed me as being immature, a child, holding my hand every step of the way. I’d also taken to drinking a lot of wine in order to deal with my apartment situation, which I’m sure served as a means to validate their unspoken criticisms of me. Determined to prove them wrong, and to prove to myself that I came to Europe for a reason, I booked a trip to Belgium for the last weekend of November, just in time for the Christmas markets. I didn’t tell anyone about my impending trip-I didn’t want any last minute bookings to spoil my existential journey into self-reliance and awareness. I was ready for the challenge-getting to my flight on time, navigating through airports, finding my hotel with only hand written directions…but I was finally ready for the challenge. And you know what? My solo trip to Belgium was the most poignant experience I had during my time abroad. I managed to navigate throughout every anticipated obstacle, making friends with fellow travelers along the way. When I returned to Barcelona, my roommates were surprised that I’d made it back without any issues. Laughing in response to their concerns, was one of the proudest moments of my life.

“So, how was it?” “Where was your favorite place you visited?” “Did you have a European fling?” For most of the questions, I had no answer. When I returned back home in December, I didn’t feel much of a difference at first, just the jet-lag and the unrecognizable weight gain on the bathroom scale. As you now know, I made many mistakes during my abroad experience which I wish I could change. But in retrospect, I’m glad that I made those mistakes over there, because I had to make them sooner or later. And sooner is surely better than later, for I’m at an age where I can learn from them. It’s better also to have made those mistakes, particularly within the social sphere, abroad, among people who I’ll never have to see again and who quite frankly, I don’t care about nor will miss. Everyone has a vision of studying abroad in their minds. Expectations, hopes, fears, assumptions…reasons for wanting to go abroad, and the expectation that they will take “something” important away from the experience. For a long while after my experience, I was a little bitter, and disappointed. Yet I’ve come to realize that though the experience wasn’t a glowing one, it was an experience, life experience, that many people never get the chance to have. What did I learn through my negative experiences? The importance of being able to recognize and tailor your behavior within different social contexts. The power observation plays in navigating winding city streets. And the good? To learn to rely on yourself. The importance of embracing your independence, and not being afraid to take the leap. Because that leap, for many college students, is the leap into adulthood, and one we all must inevitably take. As a result of my experience, I’m more prepared to face the “real-world” after I graduate this May. I now realize that I won’t be able to interact with everyone on the same level that I can interact with friends of mine from college. I now know the value in spending quality “time with oneself.” I’m down to travel pretty much anywhere in the world. I can navigate Barcelona’s airport like a pro.

Waffle from my solo Belgium trip
Waffle from my solo Belgium trip

I implore you, dear reader, to glean something positive from this narrative. I hope this doesn’t sound like a sob story, as I do not seek pity in any form-I just hope that my honest thoughts might help some of you take the plunge and go for it, like I did. Because although I came away with a much different experience than I had planned on, I wouldn’t take back having this experience for the world. The experience humbled me, it grounded me in reality, and forced me to face things about myself that I’d only be able to face outside of my sheltered college life. And as I said, I’d rather face this reality while I’m still in college, and able to prepare for it, instead of having to face a reality check after graduating. So no, your study abroad experience will not turn out the way you planned it. And it also won’t turn out like mine. You will learn hard lessons along the way, but these lessons will force you to adapt and change in ways you never imagined possible. Even if it takes a while to see the merits in your experience, one day, you’ll be thankful for all the experience you gained, the bad and the good, and will realize the advantage they gifted you with when the time is right.   

Know no limits...
Know no limits…
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