I Didn’t "Find Myself" Abroad, and That’s a Good Thing

Let's set the scene: Heathrow International Airport, London. Passengers push and shove off of a 747 from Miami, Florida. They were all ready to be free from the pressurized Pringles can that had held them captive for the past 8 hours. The boarding ramp emptied and the last passenger cautiously shuffled into the terminal. This passenger was young lady clad in a Boston University sweatshirt, a pair of Converse that used to be white, and a violently orange backpack. Nervous and a little sleep-deprived, she followed the crowd of people into a country she had never been to.

Halfway to the exit she stopped dead in her tracks and began to rip through the contents of her backpack. She soon realized that she has lost her passport. The girl decided that she must have dropped it under her seat and made b-line back to the airplane. Her shoes sent anxious "squeaks" behind her she speed-walked through the terminal. Luckily, the crew on her flight was still there and let her back onto the plane so she could look for her passport. She searched every inch of her seat but had no luck. Her passport, the one item she needed to get into England, had mysteriously vanished. The girl, now in a complete panic, reached into her jacket pocket for a stick of gum to calm her nerves. As she looked down at what should have been a pack of gum, she realized she was actually holding her passport. It must have been in her pocket the entire time. Feeling relieved, and a little stupid, the girl got off the plane for a second time and started her adventure again.

If you couldn't guess by now, that girl is me. I mention this story because it was representative of the rest of my summer. As it turns out, my misplaced passport fiasco was just the beginning of what turned out to be the most memorable yet challenging summer I ever had.

This past summer, I spent six weeks studying at the Boston University campus in central London. Like many students, I spent months leading up to my trip fantasizing about all the formative life experiences I would get to have when I went abroad. Upperclassmen who had gone the year before me described it as: "amazing," "the most fun they had ever had," and "enlightening". By the time I started to pack my bags and print my visa, I was positive that I would "find myself" on the streets of jolly old London. I didn’t know exactly what "finding myself" meant, but I had seen enough coming of age movies to know that I would leave Europe with a newfound mission in life, a sophisticated worldview, and an excitement to start adulthood. In reality, none of those things happened to me.

Don’t get me wrong, I had a wonderful time in London. I had amazing professors that sent me and my classmates to historic London Landmarks for assignments. I spent my afternoons wandering around the Victoria and Albert Museum, enjoying both authentic renaissance art and contemporary fashion exhibits. When I had to read Tolstoy for class, I did it on a sunny day while sitting by the swan pond in Hyde Park. On the weekends, my friends and I would go on pub crawls and make friends with the regulars at each place (we learned a lot of British slang along the way). I even traveled to the Welsh countryside where I went cliff jumping, surfing, and fell in love with the adorable Welsh Highland cow. Despite all these great experiences, I never really "found myself." 

Photo taken in Wales Photo taken with friends at Canterbury Cathedral

To be honest, I think I actually became separated from myself while I was in London. In the process of trying to better myself, I had pushed myself too hard. I convinced myself that I had to do more so I could grow as a person. I had to go to every museum, visit every quirky pub, see every musical, and try as many restaurants as I could. I told myself, "you are only young once, so you have to do it all." But the one thing I never did was take care of my mental health. The nonstop activities combined with difficult classes and the fact that I hadn't stopped working since January left me in a state of complete exhaustion. It became a struggle to make it to class every day and any minor setback to my plans for the day would put me in a minor state of panic. During the last week of classes, I remember feeling drained and uncomfortably disconnected from the person I was when I started this journey. In short, I was completely burnt out. I ended up losing myself in the process of trying to "find myself." 

Ultimately, to truly find myself I had to go home. When I got through customs in Miami (my hometown), I was welcomed back with a big bear hug from my sister and my mom greeted me with a box full of pastries from my favorite Cuban bakery. I was extremely happy to see them, but I was also just relieved to be back home in one piece. I was thankful to have had such a fantastic opportunity to study abroad as a freshman, but at that point what I needed most was a chance to recover and process everything that had happened since I started college. Fortunately, my physical tiredness went away after my first two weeks home (which I pretty much slept through). However, emotionally I still needed to recuperate. During my first few days at home, something had been bothering me. I felt incomplete but I didn’t know what I was missing.

I found what I had lost one afternoon while cleaning my room. I was sorting through my old school books when I found a journal that I kept during my sophomore year of high school. The pages of that journal were like a time capsule that held my closest moral values, personal struggles, thoughts, and desires. While reading it, I was surprised by how confident I was back then. Fifteen-year-old me didn’t compromise who she was to fit in with the people around her. She cared deeply about the people she loved and did what she thought was right even if it wasn’t popular. At that moment I realized what I had lost was myself. While I was busy trying to fit in at college and find my place within the context of this new community, I had lost sight of the person I was at my core. To find myself and become a better person, I had to go back to the person I was before all this happened. Before college, before London, even before I graduated high school. From day one, I had always been sure of who I was and the values I cared about. It was foolish to think that I could change that by moving to Boston or by jumping off a cliff in Wales.

I didn’t find myself in London, but in that failure, I learned a valuable lesson. I didn’t have to change on a fundamental level to become an adult. I just needed to become a stronger version of the person I already was. If I ever get the chance to study abroad again, I will remember who I am supposed to be, which is a confident version of who I have always been. I will also remember that my passport is most likely in my coat pocket...

 

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