“Just go!”: Study Abroad and Pausing Stress Culture

“Why study abroad when all my friends are here and New York City alone has enough to explore in a lifetime?” This was my instant reply to my mom after she asked me early on in my sophomore year if I was interested in spending any part of my third year at Barnard on the other side of the Atlantic.

Even as a sophomore, I barely knew any Barnard or Columbia students who had gone abroad. They exist, though; Barnard’s admissions website boasts that some 30 percent of a recent senior class studied abroad. Looking back, I think I understand why studying abroad at Barnard and Columbia appeared rare to me: if all the juniors and seniors I met were here in New York, those elusive juniors and seniors spending time abroad were, well, somewhere else.

Between the beginning and end of my sophomore year I had a change of heart. I liked my friends, liked New York, liked most things about Barnard. But two grueling semesters and a yearlong job had left me zonked, and I’d felt acutely stressed and unhappy at several points that winter. I wasn’t vibing with my classes and I wasn’t getting as much sleep as I wanted to. My social life had begun to revolve around people who shared my source of stress or were stressed out for different reasons.

I’m better now, and I’m so glad I reached out for help when those feelings hit me, but the rest of that year was still tiring. The major exception: I was lucky enough to visit Spain for a week in the spring: Madrid for one night, Barcelona and Seville for two. I did a lot of touristy—but awesome! —activities in Madrid and Barcelona; and, in Seville, a lot of wandering and tapas-eating. Long story short: I left Seville for school thinking “Gee, it is really nice here.” More specifically, “Gee, there is really good coffee here, as well as an abundance of my favorite color [yellow].”

Later that summer, I met someone from Barnard who’d been abroad in Seville for spring semester. (Looking at you, Isabel!) I don’t remember most of what she said, but I do remember her advice: “Go!”  

I’d weathered two years of the Barnard-Columbia grind. I didn’t think I could make it through another year without collapsing from all the work I would have to do. It’s no coincidence that I get the most homesick at the beginning and end of semesters, when I would a million times over rather be back home in my bedroom or backyard than studying; and while the prospect of being at home instead of college didn’t appeal to me, putting Barnard on pause and trying something different did.

I could have abided by my first-year expectations and pushed through the next two years as best as I could, or I could squeeze all of my classes for my majors into three semesters instead of four and spend one semester surprising myself. Partly on intuition, partly on principle, I made up my mind to go with this alternate plan. What did I have to lose?

So now I’m one of the elusive people who I never noticed in my first and second years at Barnard. It’s taken some time to dispel my jetlag and learn my way around the city that is my home for the next four months, but my mind is brimming with good thoughts. My host mom is kind. I’m looking forward to improving my Spanish. I’m excited for my flamenco class. I’m planning to visit friends in other parts of Spain and hopefully Italy. Though I am a diehard New Englander, I have cherished these past few 60-degree days in January.

Sure, going abroad isn’t a one-stop cure for stress. Traveling and getting acclimated to a new place have, if anything, momentarily worsened mine. But I’d advise anyone who is just a little fed up with the stress culture at Barnard and Columbia to remember that it is an option, even if you’re in STEM—I have a friend from SEAS who went abroad. First-years, sophomores, tired and beer-hungry, yearning to leave the bubble and be free, I implore you: join me!