(Note: Reposted from the article in Georgetown's newspaper The Hoya, which can be found here with stylistic variations.) Immersed in the crisp autumn air of a Parisian night, I realize that this is kind of a funny story.
I look up at the million shards of light that dance before me and breathe deeply, taking in the speechless grandeur of the Eiffel Tower. Pausing, I think to myself: “This is it! This is what I will tell people about study abroad – the revelatory feeling of discovering what only existed in dreams…”
What will I tell people when they ask about study abroad?
I think about this because I remember asking the very same questions about study abroad myself. As a Hoya, a student, and a dreamer, I have valued my time abroad at its fullest. However, I know that much of the remaining value exists in being able to translate this experience to life on the Hilltop—to both my life and that of others.
It is with this realization that I want to share something immensely important. Something I am quite frankly scared to share. I want to tell you what I wish I had known, but perhaps what you may not want to hear. I want to tell you what nobody told me about study abroad.
Strap on your seat belts, and grab a chair. Let’s do real talk.
Like many people, I had dreamed of study abroad since coming to Georgetown. I decided early-on that languages are bonkers cool; traveling is all sorts of amazing; and exploring a new culture is downright jazzy. So as junior year approached, I carefully filled out the applications and tackled the painstakingly atrocious VISA process. I chose to study in Nantes, France (the country’s 6th largest city). And six months later, I stepped off the plane. Wide-eyed, awestruck, and wondering if I was in the famed Genovia.
Fast forward to one month later, and my life as seen by most people is nothing short of a French fairytale.
I’ve met my host family and learned that my dad is a semi-famous French chef. I’ve made some awesome friends, many of which are among the 40 other American students with whom I’m spending the semester. Dublin, Paris, Munich, Bologna, Rome, Florence, and the French Champagne region dot my travel itinerary. I’ve immersed myself in the French language and started rapidly climbing the learning curve. The world’s best pain au chocolat is a daily staple. And I’ve discretely stepped into life as a femme française, forming a newfound identity as the Princess of Better-Than-Genovia.
This story illustrates the highlights of my time abroad, which has been undoubtedly magnifique. It reads like a flawless fairytale, a dream and a half, a casual frivolity. It depicts a tale without bad days or trips on the Struggle Bus. And it evokes an easy-breezy-beautiful-Covergirl sort of mentality.
But what nobody told me about study abroad is that it is not just about the highlights. It is not always “easy.”
I don't mean just physically, emotionally, socially, financially, mentally, or personally. I mean, every single bit of it. When I first remarked on these tiny ebbs of subtraction, people were quick to respond, "BUT YOU'RE IN EUROPE. YOU CRAY?" like they were shouting the final answer to Jeopardy. As if being abroad automatically means you can't feel anything but flower-crown-adorned happiness 24/7.
But bad days and personal struggles exist abroad just like anywhere else. Perhaps even more strikingly, being that one stands beyond the sureness of a comfort zone.
There may be days when you struggle with always feeling like the outsider. When your country, your culture, your language, YOU are now the minority rather than the majority. When you feel like classes are either an unbelievable “joke” or a believable impossibility. When the loss of a community of intellectual engagement leaves you without any raison d’être as a student.
It feels like the moment when the ground was yanked like a rug beneath you, and you promptly ended up landing on your tailbone. HARD. But even with a bruised ego, it’s as if it’s sunny and raining simultaneously: the rain smacks ya grandly with all it's got, but the bright moments put the starry-look back in your eyes.
Maybe or maybe not you’ll feel that nobody “gets you” in the inexact precision of your personality. You may be confronted with the loss of all things familiar, including familiarity itself. In venturing to the likes of Facebook/ Instagram/ Twitter/the Interwebz, you might be greeted with FOMO (fear of missing out). For some, maybe the lessons in solitude will manifest as lessons in loneliness. For others, there is the trying emotional investment of having a loved one elsewhere—of figuring out how to live feeling like the other half of you is elsewhere. For you, perhaps being understood in full is the simplest wish and the most unattainable desire.
In talking with others abroad this semester, every person remarked that they thought study abroad was “supposed to be easy.” Though most described the overall experience as positive, nobody described the semester as easy. And in fact, not a single person ever recalled hearing about these trying lowlights of study abroad beforehand.
Yes, I will tell you that study abroad is magnifique and for some, life-changing. That you can pursue the extraordinary and find life unlike the one you’ve lived. Yes, I will tell you that I believe it is 100% worth it and that you’ll never forget it.
But yes, I will also tell you that study abroad is not just plain easy.
For most, it’s not an endless parade of glamour and ease—a 4-month-long vacation of stars, rainbows, ponies, and absolutely perfection. I tell you this not to complain about a “hard knock life,” to lament an epic 1st world problem, to be negative, to be discouraging, to scare you. I tell you this because it’s what nobody told me. Rather, this is what I wish I had known so as to avoid feeling caught off guard or as if these sentiments were unique to me.
For me, study abroad has been nothing like I expected but far beyond anything I ever could have dreamed. Plans rarely go directly according to plan. Sass frequently goes through the roof; hair gets tangled; and life gets messy on the daily. It's not cute.
But you learn to make it your own. Through it all, life abroad paints the world in colors you’ve scarcely imagined. And the complete picture is one of highlights, lowlights, and everything in between. It’s rarely perfect but always as it should be. It’s a whole lot of organized chaos, a whole lot of faith in yourself, and the reminder that, well—
It’s kind of a funny story.