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Cloudy Skies and Fish N’ Chips: How I Settled Into My Semester Abroad

Honestly, I’m mostly disappointed they didn’t stamp my passport.

When I got off the plane at London Gatwick Airport at 6:15 a.m., the sun wasn’t even close to rising. I was too hopped up on adrenaline to be sleepy after my red-eye flight from Tampa. I had printed out too many documents to count—my admission to the University of Sussex, housing confirmation, a negative COVID test, my passenger locator form and more. But, when I finally cleared the terminal to enter baggage claim, all I had to do was stare into a camera and present my passport. 

Perhaps a bit of an anticlimactic start to a five-month stint in a foreign country, but since then, I’ve had more than enough excitement. I’ve always imagined studying abroad to be this shiny experience, where everything is new and wondrous. For my first couple of days in England, this turned out to be spot-on. 

I spent my first couple of days across the pond exploring London. I saw the Natural History Museum, ate a scone in front of Buckingham Palace and took a stroll along St. James Park. I got a peek at Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, even had fish n’ chips and a pint at an actual pub. My eyes were permanently wide, my neck craning in every direction.

But when I finally settled into my flat in Brighton—where my host university is truly located, along the southern coast of England—I was forced to slow down, to stop. I realized that I was largely alone. No one here knew me. I had to make a new group of friends, find out where to get dinner or even figure out which store would sell Command strips over here. 

It was suddenly real. I had to ask for help getting my luggage up three flights of stairs because there were no elevators. I locked myself out of my building at 9:30 p.m. in zero-degree weather with a duvet in one hand and a bag of towels in the other. I got caught in a screaming crowd of soccer (pardon me, football) fans on the way to a game when all I wanted to do was be home. The first few days were cloudy, cold and lonely. Despite all my careful planning and research, I worried I was already failing at this.

But what I realized was that I wasn’t being fair to myself. This isn’t a week-long vacation. It is half a year away from home. I don’t have to make best friends in the first month or conquer Brighton in a weekend. So what if I ask the bus driver an embarrassing question or get lost looking for classes? I’m in an entirely new place. I’ve only been here for a few weeks. I need time to find my routine and get into a groove.

I went out into the city by myself and just walked around, familiarizing myself with different neighborhoods. I did research on the bus and the train to find which subscription plan was best for me. I wrote in my travel journal about how I was feeling because I know reflecting on that at the end of the semester will be so valuable. I explored the university’s campus and got lost (several times), but Google Maps is my friend and will eventually take me home.

Plus, I’m not alone. The more social events I go to with other exchange students, the more I feel like I could have a community here. Everyone I speak to—whether they’re from Finland, Sweden, Morocco or Massachusetts—is feeling the same as me. A little lost, a bit bewildered, but incredibly excited.  

And the sun does come out over here! (Sometimes.)

If you’re planning a future study abroad adventure or struggling to find your footing in a current one, remember to be kind to yourself. No matter where you go, there’s going to be a learning curve. If you need to cry a bit for your first week here, do that. If it takes you a bit longer to go out and find a group of friends, that’s okay as well. Not every night has to be one where you make everlasting memories—that’s not only unlikely, it’s unsustainable as well. There’s no perfect blueprint for this. And honestly? The most embarrassing moments of my first week are already the funniest stories I tell each new person I meet.

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Jordyn is originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, and moved to Florida at the age of 13. A total bookworm, she loves any situation where a cup of tea and a good novel is involved. She is an Editing, Writing, and Media & Information Technology double major at Florida State University, but is currently studying abroad at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England. When she's not reading and writing, she dreams of traveling the world. Her favorite word is eclectic.
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