Why Negative Abroad Experiences are Still Valuable (and Worth Talking About)

In the fall of 2015, I studied abroad in Rome, Italy for four months. As an art history major, it was an ideal academic experience. I took three different art-based classes: a seminar about Michelangelo, an overview of Early Christian and Medieval art, and a drawing class. Plus, I got to take Intermediate Italian with a native Italian speaker and learn to be unafraid to sound silly speaking in a different tongue. As someone who loves to travel and explore new places, I got to spend four months in an incredible city and to explore other cities in Europe I had dreamed of seeing for years.

At Villa Jovis in Capri, Italy.

It sounds perfect, and on paper it was. If you looked at my blog on which I documented my experience, it had its obstacles, but it was overall a pleasant, positive adventure. Of course, what is not seen (at least, not without some sugar coating or positive spin at the end of the day) is that my experience was not perfect. There were some very tangibly negative things about my experience that are often harder to bring up when people ask “How was abroad?”

Being abroad was hard. It was fun and exciting, but it was also like being a freshman all over again. Learning to exist in a completely new environment makes you feel vulnerable and tests you on every level of your character. Coming back from abroad is equally challenging, as you realize that there are gaps in your relationships that you cannot fill. There are events and situations you missed, but there are also experiences in your life that they missed as well. You have expectations about how people are going to respond to your return and your experiences that aren’t always met.

Now, I can’t say I went in without any warning that abroad might be hard and less than perfect. The people with whom I spoke at the CGE reassured me before I left that I would be fine, that it wouldn’t be as scary as I think. I would thrive once I adapted. They did warn me it would be a test of who I am and how I function in new situations, but it was never painted as anything other than a part of the experience. It was what it was, and I’d learn to deal just as anyone else does.

Probably my favorite photo of myself from abroad, using binoculars to see the mosaics of San Vitale from the sixth century, Ravenna, Italy.

I have a friend who went on my program two years before I did. We had coffee for nearly two hours and we talked about just about every detail of the program and her experience. She gave me heavy warning that this program could be difficult. It’s not like Kenyon, she warned, but it’s still a good place and experience. I had my heart set on Rome, desperate to find an alternative to Kenyon in Rome after it was canceled for my junior year.

This program seemed like a dream come true. Despite her warnings, I was still naively excited at all of the possibilities. This was a huge opportunity for me that I refused to waste. I had never been to Europe before, let alone off the continent of North America. To me, this experience held so much possibility I could barely grasp. I could not contain my excitement, my eagerness to be there and get started.

My first night in Rome.

At the same time, I was terrified. I was scared my luggage would get lost and I would have no clothes to wear. I stressed I wouldn’t be able to make it through the long haul flights from California across the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and Italy. I feared I wouldn’t make any friends, or I would get lost in the city and never be found, or that I would get hurt or attacked and wouldn’t know how to function.

There were so many what ifs, but my mind was so focused on being excited and perhaps feeling brave, so I simply pushed forward. I prepared like crazy. I studied the student handbook from my program for weeks. I memorized and practiced saying the address I would have to give my cab driver to take me from the airport to my school’s campus. Suddenly, the day arrived and I was swept off to Rome.

I admit, the transition was hard. I spent nearly the first six weeks of my program feeling like I didn’t belong in Rome. I felt separate from the life there, from the culture of the city. It felt wrong. I made some acquaintances with whom I would go to meals and wander Via del Corso or Piazza Navona on our quest for St. Peter’s. After orientation, we took a walk at night from our program on the Aventine Hill to the Colosseum and up to the Spanish Steps, even though we had seen them that morning. We just wanted to see them again, on our terms rather than those of our tour guide. I was floating in an awkward space between having the time of my life and trying so hard to fit in with the people who actually spoke to me, I didn’t recognize myself.

Seeing the Colosseum for the first time and completely freaking out.

I wish I could tie this story up in a bow by saying things got better and I made the best friends ever. That’s what the brochures say will happen. That abroad will be the best time of your life, no matter what! But that’s not necessarily the case, and in some ways it wasn’t for me.

I spent so many nights incredibly lonely and missing all of my friends from school and from home. I Skyped my mom and others from home often in the evening, since 1. that was when it fit into our schedules due to the time difference and 2. I had so much more free time than I was used to at school because my classes weren’t as rigorous and I didn’t have friends with whom to hang out.

It’s not that the people I studied abroad with were bad people. I simply didn’t connect with anyone. That’s okay, just like in college it’s okay to not connect with many people. However, when you’re abroad and so much of the emphasis of safety in big cities is to stay in groups, it can be really scary. I spent many weeks after I started to drift from my first acquaintances afraid to even walk down the hill to get dinner. However, I forced myself to get over that quickly by just going out anyway. I came to crave that time to myself and to explore on my own.

In Paris and seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time, before I got a cold.

I saw museums I would not have gone to had I waited for someone to come with me. Every Monday morning, I walked down the hill to buy yogurt and other snacks from the grocery store and did laundry while everyone else had morning classes. It culminated in my Fall Break trip to Paris, solo. It was the best decision I made, since I got to see as much as possible by my own standards. I didn’t eat nearly as well as I should have due to my discomfort going to restaurants by myself, but I had the time of my life.

Most of all, while I was abroad I felt lost. It was not an issue of an improper map or lack of directions to roaming Rome. (Ha.) I felt like I had lost myself. I didn’t know where I fit into the fabric of my American program, nor into that of the city as a whole. My room felt like a home, more because of the amount of time I spent in it than anything else. It was especially disorienting since I have spent years learning to love myself and trying to understand who I am, yet this relocation left me helpless, back at ground zero. The tasks at hand felt impossible to face until I did face them. To quote Tim Gunn, I made it work and I found happiness in new places, both within myself and within the city at my fingertips for the semester.

Struggling with personal identity abroad is not a new idea. I remember vaguely reading about the idea in a massive packet from the CGE about culture shock. However, it never felt real when it was discussed. It always felt like something they had to mention it because it sometimes happened more than because it was personally experienced. From my talks with other people who went abroad, my experience is not unique. It is personal, and it is experienced here.

Though it was hard, I tried to stick to my optimistic roots abroad, while I definitely felt judged, like by this tourist.

Going abroad is not going to be perfect. That’s not possible, as nothing in life is perfect. This idea is a construct our society has built that glorifies the positive benefits of going abroad without really addressing some of the negatives it can bring. However, the negative experiences you have do not discount all of the positive ones you are bound to have.

I am lucky that the biggest obstacles I faced were a broken laptop and not making friends. I adapted. I asked for help to find a laptop repair that was a reasonable distance away. I learned to be independent, to walk with confidence, to look as if I knew where I was going (even if I didn’t). I learned how to make very detailed directions for myself so I wouldn’t get lost.

Beyond that, my experience was generally positive. So much good came out of my experience that sometimes I forget with hindsight the negative aspects of my abroad experience. It is easy to glorify the past when it is no longer our present, and I think we need to feel comfortable talking about every aspect of going abroad with equal care and rigor. There are still going to be students like me who are too naive and eager to listen hard enough, but I should not feel uncomfortable mentioning the details of this article because it makes others uncomfortable.

Being a cool kid in Copenhagen.

When someone asks “how was abroad?” they aren’t asking for the real nitty gritty answer. They are looking for an answer such as “It was great, I learned a lot!” Then they want to move on and focus on the here and now, on being back and on something you share. Few actually want to know everything. Few want to understand what you learned, or hear the good and bad stories of food poisoning, swimming in the Mediterranean, or traversing cobblestones.

For those who truly listen, talking about abroad can be so valuable. It deconstructs how study abroad is viewed. It allows me to reevaluate my experience and how I understand it now that I am no longer there. It also allows me to see how much I have grown, how I understand the world, and how this has shaped me. I am happy I went abroad, and I value the experience endlessly. I know it could have gone better, that it could have gone worse, and that it is what it is. This experience is mine, and I own it.


Image Credit: Jenna Wendler