About 15 months ago I sat in the back of my parent’s car, it was just before Christmas and we were on our way to see a play and I got an email:
Congratulations- we would like to offer you a place on the Year Abroad Exchange Program at Stony Brook University.
I’d applied to study abroad on a bit of a whim, partly because my friends were and partly because I was feeling in a bit of a rut. I never really thought about what would happen after I actually sent in the application. I definitely didn’t think about what going actually meant, or if I was brave enough to leave my very comfortable environment at my current university behind. But as soon as I got that offer, I think deep down I knew, whether I’d regret it or not, I’d never say no to it. It wasn’t necessarily that I had something to prove to people, but I think I needed to prove something to myself.
A year and a half later, my year abroad has been cut short by 2 months because of a global pandemic, which, let’s be honest, wasn’t exactly how I imagined it. But things very rarely are exactly how you imagine them. I am gutted to be leaving early, but not as sad as you might think. I guess I’m struggling to feel sad because I’m focusing on the good feelings. I’m unsatisfied with how it’s ending so soon, I still had so much left to see, but I am satisfied with what this year, or I guess 7 months have done for me. And if I could tell the me that sat in the back of my parent’s car that, she wouldn’t have been able to sign those papers fast enough.
Making the decision to study abroad, is a difficult one. You’re deciding to leave all of your safety nets behind, all your friends you’ve spent years making at university, who might not all be there when you get back, and the life you’ve made for yourself, that again, will definitely be different on your return. But don’t let that fear of change stop you. I’m the first one to have done that in the past, and I almost didn’t go because of it. The thing is, no matter any of the negatives, and there will always be negatives to any choice, studying abroad is filled with so much more richness than choosing to stay in your comfort zone will ever give you.
The confidence you gain from being literally forced to navigate difficult situations without your regular support system is unmatchable. Stripped away from comfort, I’ve found most people thrive where they always thought they might sink. And it’s that worry about sinking that really stops us in the first place isn’t it? That niggling concern that we’ll get it wrong. And I’ve found throughout this year I’ve probably got it wrong more than I’ve got it right, and that was the best way to learn the ways in which I really needed to grow, which are in different ways to how you expect.
Immersing yourself in a new culture is one of the things you think you’re prepared for before actually doing it, and for me I guess I didn’t really expect the difference to be as vast as it was. But again, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Experiencing American college life, gross frat parties, over the top football games and the various quirks of America has been an eye opening, interesting and just a genuinely good experience. Seeing the city, and Broadway shows, Times Square, and the parts of New York tourists don’t visit, plus all the amazing people I’ve met in the past year, has been everything I could have asked for.
I can’t promise you studying abroad won’t have its lows as well because that’s just the way life is, and this is no exception. On top of all the regular blips in life, you have the added stress of managing homesickness and a new environment, which can be an extra kick in the teeth when you’re already stressed about work or falling out with a friend or experiencing relationship drama. It’s not easy, but I think if it was it wouldn’t be worth it. It’s the fact that it is so challenging that makes you glad you’ve done it. Like I said, even when the hardest moments hit, the knowledge that you know how to pick yourself up, and handle these situations on your own gives you a new sense of independence that I know I never really had to deal with before this year.
I found when I was experiencing all these incredible things it felt so surreal that I had to keep reminding myself that these were memories I got to keep. Most of it felt so out of touch with anything I’d experienced before- it was like I was worried the moments would float away before I’d saved them into my long-term memory. So, I’ve learnt to savour the tiniest moments, gradually, instead of all at once.
It’s very boring to say that studying abroad changed my life, and I don’t think I’ve been back in normality long enough to really know that yet. But it definitely altered my perspective, my ability to say yes to things before I think no, to speak when I’m afraid to, and do the things I always used to doubt I could do. It opened me up in a way I had been shut for a very long time. And for that, I couldn’t be more grateful to this university (even if they do kick you off campus in the middle of said global pandemic), and to this opportunity. This year gave me something irreplaceable.
So, to anyone who is thinking of studying abroad, please just do it. You’ll do your own bout of overthinking before you actually decide to, just like I did. But you’ll probably know, that the minute this opportunity falls in your lap it is impossible to brush it off. Even if you dismiss the idea, it will follow you home, and keep reminding you of itself- and there’s a reason for that. And it’s horribly cliche and I didn’t believe it all, but there’s a reason everyone says it is the best thing they chose to do. It isn’t some magical thing, it’s a lot of hard work and perseverance and putting yourself out there in ways that seem most obvious and terrifying. But if you put in that work, you’ll get something out of it that you never really knew was possible to.
So, if you don’t know whether to study abroad, if this opportunity arises, don’t let it pass you, seize it. I ask simply if you are going to take one leap of faith, to let it be this one- and that’s coming from someone who has always been just a little terrified of falling. All you need to be is stupidly fearless for one minute and it really could change everything for you.
I’m leaving America with the anticipation of visiting as soon as we are all actually allowed out of our houses again, and the kind of contentment I have been looking for, for a while and never found until now.
New York you were everything- see you soon.