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Timer picture of me and my study abroad roommate Sophie in front of the Opera House
Timer picture of me and my study abroad roommate Sophie in front of the Opera House
Photo by Maggie Dunn
Life > Experiences

We Get It. You Studied Abroad.

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Vanderbilt chapter.

This article is dedicated to the residents of apartments423, 111, 224, 211, and 124.

As my knowledge of Hell is limited to that one scene in Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (2010) where Percy, Annabeth, and Grover meet Persephone in the underworld, I did some research on life after death and the home of all suffering from the literary legend himself, Dante. In summary, Rick Riordan’s young adult fantasy series Percy Jackson & the Olympians has far greater academic merit than Dante’s Inferno (1321), part of the 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy (1321). Both are commendably guided and inspired by the works of ancient Greek and Roman authors like Virgil and Homer, but Dante foolishly leaves out a critical kind of sinner from his hierarchy of evil—because I think many would argue that down there in the Seventh ring of Hell, among the murderers and thugs submerged in boiling blood, are the people who studied abroad in college and won’t shut the fuck up about it.

This is simply a reality of life—an archetype that we all know and hate—a person who is so insufferably annoying and deserves to be banished from our college campuses to the depths of Hell. And I have a confession to make. 

I am one of those people.

As much as I hate to admit it, I kind of understand why sympathy for “my kind” is limited. We shove random lore and lingo down your throat like Gen Z and a Josh Hutcherson whistle meme—as if the names of foreign cities and popular pubs are as much a part of your lexicon as ours. We claimed to have had “raging FOMO” towards our friends back home and then proceeded to flaunt the most extravagant adventures on Instagram. We romanticized our time abroad like we were main characters in a 2000s internationally located tween romcom—except unlike The Lizzie McGuire Movie (2003) or Monte Carlo (2011), nobody mistook us for A-list celebrities. 

So, yeah. I get it. We can be a little hard to swallow at times. I think that’s why I feel so compelled to explain why we’re like this—to convince you all that there’s so much more going on than a desire to flex our recent travels—and in the end, it all comes down to one simple question.

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

This debate can be traced all the way back to the 1700s when Irish philosopher George Berkeley published A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710). Berkeley was what is called an immaterialist, believing that the physical world does not exist outside of consciousness. In other words, his answer to the tree question was no, it does not make a sound—sound necessitates one hearing it. 

Many other philosophers, scientists, and Reddit writers have given their two cents on the answer, citing different metaphysical arguments and personal anecdotes, but what it all comes down to is your belief in the role of perception and whether or not sensing something is, in fact, what makes it real, known, or existing. What I’ve come to understand in the past couple months is that study abroad students aren’t just Hillary Duff wannabes; they’re immaterialists, and what a lonely thing to be.

There’s this principle in social psychology called the Chameleon Effect, describing the way in which people unconsciously mimic or adapt to the behaviors, mannerisms, and actions of the people they’re interacting with. This process is critical when making new friends, especially when you’re stuck with that program of twenty or so college kids for the next four and a half months. We have to adapt to the people around us in order to find our role among them. And so, right off the bat, within our first fifteen minutes of orientation, I changed. 

But it didn’t end there. As we came to know each other, we unlocked all the adventures that come with embracing the likes and dislikes of new people. Suddenly, I was watching the Star Wars movies, head banging at Battle of the Bands, and hanging out in a local bar like I was on the cast of How I Met Your Mother. A world unfurled in front of me, one so monumentally different from the one that I experienced at home. 

Not all of it was glamorous, of course. I had to survive on the middest of mid Targets and a nonexistent Amazon Prime. And trust me, you’ve never faced procrastination like that which comes in combination with grades that don’t factor into your GPA. I already hated grocery shopping, but walking a week’s worth of produce ¾ of a mile because nobody had a goddamn car set me off like Regina George realizing Cady Heron was trying to take her spot as Queen Bee of the Plastics. I remained a victim of the metric system no matter how many weeks went by. I showed my American friend a photo of the thermometer when I had a 39.4-degree fever, and he said, “Wow. You’re freezing.” And, of course, I lived in constant fear of the $1700 fine for setting off the fire alarm in our apartment building. 

But even the bad things were part of the experience. I still desperately wanted to make others understand—because George Berkeley described it best: if other people don’t perceive it, if other people don’t know what we’ve been through, it almost feels like it never happened.

So I tried to explain. I told stories of sunrise surfs, euphoric bike rides, and late-night escapades to the local park. Stories of treacherous romances, fuming rivalries, and friendships that feel a whole hell of a lot more like family. Stories of life-threatening sunburns, applying to grad school, and learning how to cook chicken for the first time. I tried to make people understand why it is that when I got back, I felt like an engineering major taking an English class to fulfill the writing requirement—notably out of place.

The only person who seemed to understand was a friend of mine who had studied abroad in Sydney the year before. We talked for about an hour on Thanksgiving day, but as I expressed my worries, hoping that he would give me solutions, he did not. He believed that that isolation was how it was supposed to be—that there’s beauty in the fact that only I’d know what I had been through.

While reflecting on whether or not I agreed with him, I thought about how I ended up in Australia because only one thing in this world could make me want to study abroad in a land so astronomically far from home that it houses some of the deadliest creatures on God’s green Earth: A boy. Fueled by the need to flee the country after one of the world’s most tortuous breakups, I scraped together an application to go to Sydney just three days before the deadline. Five months later I found myself on a fourteen hour flight from LAX to The Land Down Under.

What if I had never gone through that breakup and stayed in America for my senior fall semester?…It wouldn’t be the first time I planned my life around a boy. What if I had chosen to go somewhere else? I’m not an Econ major, I have more than one pillow, and I pull hats all the way down when I wear them, but I could have had fun with the frat boys in Madrid. What if I had chosen to attend the University of New South Wales instead of the University of Sydney? It’s closer to the beach, although, with my impending skin cancer, that might have been more of a danger than a blessing. 

In Chaos Theory, there’s this idea that small things can have much larger effects in the grand scheme of life, also known as The Butterfly Effect. I find myself indebted to it. A million little things had to go right for me to meet those very specific people and live in that very specific place. And those people and that city gave me some of the best days of my life. If any other person were to experience what I had been through, it wouldn’t have been what it was. And it was perfect. So, maybe there is some beauty in the fact that only the people I went with and I will understand. Because so long as we have each other, it will remain perceived, and so long as it stays between us, it will remain the same. 

I’ve been home for a little over a month now, and I feel I’m finally at peace with my return. But with the start of the next semester upon us, we enter a whole new arena—a reintroduction into our previous campus lives—so I just want to say a preemptive thank you and I’m sorry to anyone who has a friend returning from studying abroad. Your patience as we get asked for the 11th time in the first week, “Oh my god! How was it?” is much appreciated. I know it can’t be easy to hear the same highlight reel over and over again. Sure, I could keep it simple and stick to the basics: “Yes, the spiders are gigantic. No, shrimp on the Barbie isn’t a real thing. Duh, I had a fling with an Australian boy,” and I know that response would be the most consistent with my reflection, growth, and acceptance but at the end of the day…I’m just a study abroad kid—Egocentrism and Hillary Duff syndrome are coded into my DNA. It’s like unawareness of other people’s interests is required for the University of Sydney to send my transcripts back to Vanderbilt. I’m going to start every sentence with, “When I was in Australia…” and there’s nothing you can do about it.

So, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. My tree’s about to come down with the weight of a thousand suns, and I plan to put on a performance.

Maggie Dunn

Vanderbilt '24

Hi! I'm Maggie! I'm a senior at Vanderbilt studying Cognitive Studies and Human and Organizational Development. I currently live in Little Rock, Arkansas, but I've lived in 6 others states (NH, MA, NY, CT, MI, and TN). I started keeping a digital diary my sophomore year of high school that evolved to be over 200 pages. That was the beginning of my love for writing. Now I like to tell stories and critique my experiences and the world around me. I'm so grateful to be a part of Her Campus and get the chance to share my writing with all of you! :)