“It’s the best time of your life.”
“It’ll be the most amazing experience.”
“Studying abroad was the best decision I ever made in college.”
“When else in your life do you get to spend four months living in a foreign country this easily?”
“You’re going to love it.”
One year ago today, I boarded a flight from New York City to Johannesburg, South Africa. After 20-something hours of travel, I arrived in Cape Town, exhausted, excited, and full of anticipation about what the next four months would hold. In the months that followed the first day, I traveled the southern coast of South Africa, I sun-bathed on beautiful beaches, I went to museums, I climbed mountains (okay, just the one), I went shark cage diving, I shopped at amazing markets, I ate way too much frozen yogurt, I went paragliding, I played with monkeys, I made best friends, I saw lions and giraffes and elephants on safari with my family, and I had the time of my life. I also trudged through the rain to class, I studied hard in my bed at night with wifi that could barely be classified as sub-par, I fought with my roommate, I shivered under the covers in my freezing cold apartment, I felt worlds away from my family, friends, and boyfriend, I had panic attacks that were so intense I threw up, I dealt with the grief of a classmate/floor-mate passing away, I spent a lot of time alone, and I cried.
If you’ve ever studied abroad, you’ve heard (and maybe said) more than one of the statements above. Now that I’ve come back from studying abroad, I’d wholeheartedly agree with all of this. But what nobody tells you before you study abroad is that it’s HARD. It can be scary and sad and lonely. I cried in public more than once. Hell, I cried in public more than five times.
My experience may have been different than other people’s experiences, but I think I speak for more than just myself in saying that studying abroad is not all sunshine, mountain climbing, cafes, and museums. Nobody talks about the hard stuff. All you hear before going abroad is how much you’re going to love it, how you’ll miss it when you leave, and how everyone is so jealous of you for getting to go on this amazing trip. And while it is all of those things – incredible and fun and the most wonderful experience – it is also one of the hardest experiences. You leave your family, the friends you’ve made over the past few years at college, and all the norms of the country you grew up in for an entirely new culture, school, and maybe even a new language. You have to start all over in a new place, and while that can be the most freeing, exciting feeling in the world, it can also be terrifying.
Studying abroad was without a doubt the most amazing experience of my life. It’s easy to say this in retrospect – when I was there, it usually did not feel like the most amazing experience. I expected a lot from my abroad experience, so any time it did not live up to expectations, I was disappointed. Looking back on it now, I wouldn’t change my abroad experience for the world – I learned a lot about South Africa, about what it’s like to go to a large school, about how to make new friends, and about myself. It was the most enriching experience of my life, but I recognize now that I played a big role in that. Going abroad taught me how to love a place, how to love from afar, how to productively miss people. It taught me to be okay with being alone, with being myself, and doing what I wanted to. Going abroad made me a stronger person, and for that, all of the hardships were worth it.