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Getting Real About Post-Study Abroad Readjustment

Content warning: mention of restrictive/disordered eating.

People talk about semesters abroad a lot like how they talk about other important life events, such as the birth of a baby cousin or the wedding of a sibling. It’s a big deal — especially if it’s someone’s first time travelling outside of their home country. People talk about how they are “transformed,” changed forever, by these experiences. And friends and family stay in the know by scrolling through lengthy Facebook photo albums and jolly Instagram posts of their friend or relative “holding” the Eiffel Tower or eating a giant pretzel in Bavaria.

Photo courtesy of Pexels

And this is a lot of what studying abroad actually is. It’s a lot of eating, drinking, laughing, taking photos, sending fifty postcards at once and dancing with attractive European men in clubs. It’s joyful and reckless and wholly exciting. But I feel that this portrait of the study abroad experience doesn’t capture the before, and more importantly, the after. When I got back to Bryn Mawr, I was bombarded with a combination of reverse culture shock and a strange “hollowness” of filling a space that I was afraid was no longer there for me. Junior year is a weird year for all involved — even those who don’t go abroad. For me, my post-abroad hollowness (and, admittedly, emptiness) has led me to rethink my place at Bryn Mawr and, in the process, write a lot of angsty journal entries.

I spent last semester studying at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. TCD is home to about 12,000 undergraduates and 4,000 postgraduates — enormous compared to what I’m used to. It was especially shocking because part of the reason I had come to BMC was because of its small size; I didn’t want to be anonymous to my professors or among my peers. In fact, no matter how hard I’ve tried sometimes — when I’ve struggled, felt insecure, wanted to disappear — it’s sort of impossible to be anonymous at BMC.

So to make my new campus seem smaller, I joined a choir, participated in a theatrical production and attended events hosted by an anti-capitalist group. I made a handful of friends, a few of whom I’m still in regular contact with.

Despite my busy schedule, and despite the fact that Trinity’s campus was always swarming with people, there were a lot of times when I felt lonely. Irish culture is simultaneously friendly and distant. I spent a lot time on my own, albeit for good reasons; I was busy correcting my restrictive eating habits and a dangerously poor body image, as well as a constant feeling of homesickness that never really seemed to go away. Seeing photos on Facebook and Instagram of my friends back at BMC made me wish I had never gone abroad — though I constantly told myself that I had “made the right decision.” And in retrospect, I am so, so glad that I had the opportunity to be away from BMC for a while; I am grateful that I was able to travel around Ireland and Europe, experiencing cultures different from my own. It wasn’t until my last week in Dublin that I started to realize how much I had missed out on because I had spent my semester being self-centered. And I decided that while it was okay for me to be self-centered once in a while, my loneliness had been entirely my fault.

Over winter break, I told myself that when I got back to Bryn Mawr, everything would be normal again. The grassy, goose-infested campus in southeastern Pennsylvania seemed like paradise compared to Trinity: a place where I had felt alone, anonymous. My weeks would once again be filled with studying in sunny libraries, ordering Insomnia Cookies with close friends and dancing the night away at Penn.

And all of these things did happen during my first month back at BMC. I did order Insomnia Cookies, study in sunny libraries and dance the night away at Penn. I tried my best to spend time with friends, with professors, with all that was familiar. During my first couple of days on campus, my friends were happy to see me, and I them. I told them all about my time abroad — how I had felt lonely and homesick a lot of the time — but how I missed it, looking back now. Nevertheless, I was excited to be “home,” and excited to start classes.

But something wasn’t right. I would sit in the dining hall at dinner, more often than not, alone. My busy schedule saw to it that I ate dinner at odd times, unable to make proper plans with friends to eat together. At the corner tables in Erdman I could see everything that was going on — who was sitting with who, what people were eating, who was making a lot of noise.

And I saw how many people were sitting with their friends, and it made me think: should I be sitting with my friends? Am I doing something wrong?

Another specific time I felt this way was during the Mitski concert in the Campus Center. I stood next to a few friends; we sang along and swayed to the music. But being in large rooms with crowds of people has always made me feel out of place, especially considering how I had been feeling, and somehow I was feeling more out of place than usual.

Among other things, Mitski sung about isolation. I had listened to her music hundreds of times before, but I heard the lyrics differently this time. I thought about how maybe Mitski also felt empty in college. I wondered if she felt empty on the stage that night, even if she knew how much everyone in the audience admired her.  

This out-of-place feeling was persistent throughout my first few weeks back at BMC, even when nothing or no one in particular had made me feel that way. I was conscious that all of my friends had gone an entire semester without me, and I almost felt like I was intruding. On top of that, I didn’t know any of the first-years or new transfer students. So even on this small campus, I felt anonymous.

When I’m upset about something, my first instinct is to overshare (hence, this entire article). I sat down with a couple of friends at dinner one day in early February, and the conversation went a little bit like this:

“I’m feeling empty and I’m not really sure why,” I said, “and it’s not quite loneliness. I think I’m having a hard time re-adjusting.”

One of my friends, also a junior, seemed to catch my drift. She told me that she had felt similarly last semester, although she didn’t go abroad, and that she knew of other people who were feeling the same way I was. She called it “hollowness.” I think that’s a good way to describe it: not quite loneliness, but a sense of emptiness and discomfort that comes when you return to a place you’ve been away from for a long time.

So here are some of the things I’m doing to readjust to BMC — to feel less hollow:

I’m staying busy.

…But not too busy. I’m big into scheduling out my days, ensuring both productivity (thanks, capitalism) and moments for self-care. I’m joining new clubs and reinforcing my involvement in old ones. The less time I spend laying in bed, the less time I’ll have to wallow in self-doubt.

I’m leaving places where I feel empty.

I attend social events intuitively. If I get overwhelmed or feel out of place for whatever reason, I disconnect. It can be difficult to not feel like I’m being antisocial or rude, but I’m trying to set those thoughts aside. Simply put, I want to spend more time being happy! I’m choosing moments carefully.

I’m starting new projects.

I love writing (obviously), so I am directing my energies into making art. This includes writing stories, journaling, making zines or even just looking for new internship opportunities.

I’m making plans with close friends whenever I can.

Sometimes I forget what an amazing support network of close friends I have. I’m trying to make up for lost time by scheduling group meals and study sessions whenever possible. Human interaction with the right people fills me with energy and reminds me that I do, in fact, have a place on this campus.

I’m reflecting on my time abroad.

While in Ireland, I learned how to travel (and board planes) alone, cook for myself every day and pour the perfect pint of Guinness. But part of the study abroad experience that not enough people talk about is the readjustment to your home campus. What’s helped me work through this sense of emptiness is realizing that what I’m feeling is completely normal. It’s all a learning experience: staying flexible and moving from place to place is part of being an adult! My sense of belonging is non-linear; I’m learning how to be okay with that, and I’m learning self-reliance.

Just a Bryn Mawr frosh who loves music, theatre, cats, key lime pie, hot tea, Gene Kelly, and being a vegetarian. I am a DJ for the Bi-College radio station, WHRC, and I sing with both an a cappella group called the Extreme Keys and with the Bryn Mawr/Haverford College Chamber Singers. I am a prospective double major in English and Music Performance, and I hope to someday (with a little luck) work as a both a freelance writer and classical vocalist.
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