People associate studying abroad with young-adult epiphanies. Students recount their experiences of taking once in a lifetime, international classes, their eyes gleaming with nostalgia. Students feel enchanted by this idea, the notion that studying abroad changes your life. Photos plastered around Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook all promote the greatness of being abroad, but these glimpses fail to capture reality.
As a student who has gone abroad twice, I am here to tell you about the dark-side of studying abroad.
Feelings of intense anxiety combined with sparse moments of harmony made studying abroad one of the most uncontrollable periods of my life. As a freshly graduated eighteen-year-old, I remember sitting in the orientation. All the pictures of traveling and long captions about moments only possible abroad convinced me that I would become the best version of myself here. All I wanted to do was start exploring my new home in Florence, Italy.
One of the representatives of the program vividly recounted her experience in London. She said the experience changed the course of her life. She remarked how our experience in Italy would become part of us, saying, “Your lives will now be divided into two parts: before you went abroad and after you went abroad.”
I thought Italy would provide me a defining moment, a realization of my bigger purpose. Spoilers, I did not find it. And I don’t blame the representative.
Going abroad looks like a semester of non-stop fun, excitement and adventure. However, the need to party and constantly enjoy myself dissipated soon after I arrived. While going out was great the first two weeks, I quickly became drained. Within the first month, the gilded sparkle fell away. Reality hit me the same way all the constant going hit my body. I felt so exhausted physically and mentally, trying to force a mindset that no longer fit. I felt fake.
Even though I was tired, I did not stop. Determination to show-off my “best” life abroad fueled me to buy that plane ticket or take that shot. But inside, I struggled. Social media made traveling each weekend seem so exciting, but you can’t see the bags under students’ eyes from sleepless nights. You can’t see their relentless anxiety from constant spending. I know I couldn’t.
Adults and strangers told me how traveling in foreign lands would be great for personal development. I doubt these people ever tried to catch a taxi in Munich during Oktoberfest, not knowing a lick of German. Friends constantly remarked about my luck, but I never felt lucky. Guilt pushed me to spend the extra euros I did not possess, all for the grand experience. The overwhelming suffocation of spending too much of everything deteriorated my excitement.
I would plop on my bed, fully burned-out, just to repeat the cycle in a few days. Stressing about being on time for flight and train departures clouded the pressure from friends and media to be blissfully indulgent. My constant state of exhaustion began to negatively affect my health. But as each Friday approached, my recovery period stalled.
I had to put on my ecstatic façade, and dive right back into the relentless routine.
Those pretty posts never mention just how much it costs to live the abroad life. Eating at restaurants, going out every night and non-stop travel blindly add up.If an airline company decides your carry-on does not comply with regulations, you pay extra. The airline does not care if you used that luggage for every other flight, and there goes the money you didn’t realize you had to spend. Figuring out finances in a foreign country, in a different time-zone from your parents or bank, is way more difficult than figuring it out at home.
Studying abroad felt like being on campus, except I had no solution to daily problems. Forget to buy a pack of toothpaste at the grocery store? Good luck. You can’t find any late-night pharmacies. Did the shower stop working? You have to wait. The pressure came crashing down, and I could no longer deny the truth. Being abroad failed to live up to my expectations.
Nothing happened the way social media promised and I envisioned. I never got my moment of epiphany, and I am sure plenty of other students feel the same way. You can’t have a moment of epiphany in a constant state of mental and physical fatigue. While some people will forever praise their time in a different country, the experience is not as enjoyable for others. I am still searching for my moment, but I am not using anything I learned from studying abroad to help.