The idea of studying abroad never really worried me. Maria Montessori advocated that students ages twelve and older require at least a week outside of a normal “school” environment each month. So, from ages twelve to fourteen, my classmates and I (accompanied by a teacher or two) retreated––what we referred to as “immersions.”
Our classroom became a national forest, our lesson how to build a campfire. We removed ourselves from cell-phones and took up team-bonding activities. We travelled across the southeast in a seven-passenger van, solving riddles and calculating the price of gas. For that week, our teachers were more interested in practical life lessons, such as being able to grill a hamburger or changing a spare tire, than concerned about whether we could do geometry. Funnily enough, those practical lessons were often intertwined with academic knowledge.
I missed those immersions in high school, and desperately craved them. A week without true teacher supervision to just think and breathe and laugh with your friends. It’s a rare and privileged experience to be sure.
So when I decided to study abroad, I figured I was well-equipped to deal with any challenges thrown at me. The five months ahead of me were just accrued time from the seven years I had spent without an immersion. I was nervous, sure, but I had always been nervous before any immersion, and I was excited too.
What I hadn’t realized it that we’ve all been (myself definitely included) corrupted by TV, movies, Instagram, YA books, etc. to believe that studying abroad will be our chance. Our chance at romance, at a life well-lived, at starting over. Our final chance, the last chance, a lifelong chance. And maybe for some people, those expectations end up being true. But not for me.
Before going abroad, I felt immense pressure to have “the time of my life,” whatever that means to you (and it means something different to everyone, I promise you). I felt like I was carrying not only my hopes and fears for the upcoming five months, but everyone else’s as well. I wanted to have fun, to thrive in my classes and to have a thousand fabulous stories to tell when I came back.
What I found out pretty quickly is that unlike immersion, where there’s at least an outline for you and your classmates, being abroad is living in a constant state of “fear-of-missing-out.” You can’t do everything or be everywhere––it’s not good for you financially, physically or mentally. You have to figure out what works for you. For me, it was focusing on my education, despite being in Europe.
I studied really hard while I was abroad. I wrote some of the most complex essays of my academic career and struggled with the literary theory that other students in my classes had mastered their freshmen year. I never felt like I was on an extended vacation from school, as so many adults like to claim about the study abroad experience.
I did, however, eventually begin to feel like I was on an immersion, which is exactly what I had hoped for in the first place.
I travelled minimally compared to many other abroad students, visiting only five countries, two of which I was already vaguely familiar. I waited until my family arrived to travel around the majority of Ireland. I wasn’t interested in doing too much travelling, knowing that I’d often be so stressed about my upcoming schoolwork that I wouldn’t enjoy my vacation time.
Instead, I thoroughly enjoyed Dublin, every second that I could spare. Sometimes, I even brought a schoolbook into a pub at three in the afternoon — a pint and a novel became my new norm. I couldn’t have been more in love.
If I had been out of Dublin every weekend, I would have collapsed. Still, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t occasionally want to cry from missing out on a trip to Amsterdam or being unable to afford to fly to France. It just meant that I often had to shake myself out of these “abroad” expectations and look out the window. I had to smile at the way the Rathmines clock tower brushed a cloudy Dublin sky.
For me to thrive during my abroad experience (and I truly believe that I did thrive), I had to release myself from all expectations and pressures — my own and those of others. I wanted to stay in Dublin during the weekends, so I did. I wanted to work hard in school, despite needing only passing grades, so I did. I wanted to go out for dinner three nights a week, so I did. I wanted to stay in bed, so I did.
I don’t think studying abroad changed me, and I don’t think we should expect our abroad experiences to work, or somehow inspire, that change for us. That is more than you can ask from any one experience in your collegiate career. Perhaps I’ve come back from Dublin a bit more confident — something that came for me from navigating big cities that I’d never stepped foot in before, having to ask what seemed like obvious questions and crossing language barriers to the best of my ability.
But I am still me. I certainly have stories about my time abroad, but I didn’t fall in love (unless you count with the city of Dublin), I didn’t have any sort of self-epiphany and I never once found myself in a pub at four in the morning.
For me, abroad was simply a step of my entire college journey. I believe that there are larger, grander and perhaps even more gratifying adventures ahead of me. Still, I would happily repeat the abroad experience in a heartbeat.
So my advice to everyone currently abroad, going abroad or even thinking about studying abroad, is just to let go. Let go of the pressure — that being put on you by the world as well as the pressure you’re personally putting on your abroad experience.
Abroad will be a lot more fun than you imagine if you remove all your expectations of what’s to come.
Image Credit: Writer’s Own