Blame it on the overly nostalgic adults in our lives. Blame it on the happiness competition created by social media. Blame it on the allure of fresh starts or a glorified (and Instagrammed) view of wanderlust. Blame it on what you will, but when it comes to studying abroad, our expectations tend not to entirely align with reality.
Despite having already learned the hard way that college, particularly the first quarter of it, may not actually be the happiest time of our entire lives, we still want to believe that these four months will represent some of the most magical. That the aunt who told us we would come back “changed forever and forever changed” actually knew what she was talking about.
It’s not that studying abroad doesn’t sometimes feel like being in a movie. It’s just that the movie is one in which you play the ditzy character who ends up in unfortunate situations on an improbably regular basis, and not the one who ends up on the back of a Vespa with a hot Italian. After all, this is not your Lizzie McGuire moment.
By talking to a handful of Northwestern students about their first few weeks abroad, I was able to get a sense of some of the points at which the metaphorical glass shattered on their “magical” study abroad experiences, and which of their expectations diverged most dramatically from the reality.
Expectation: You’ll step into the city center after getting off the plane and immediately feel overwhelmed by the historic beauty surrounding you. You’ll lift your trendy sunglasses to get a better view of the cobblestone street you will call your new home, your gauzy scarf blowing behind you in the breeze.
Reality: You step off the coach bus you took to your dorm that turns out to be a fifteen-minute train ride away from the city center directly into the bike lane (side note: who knew those were a thing here?) and are nearly run over by a cyclist. You wonder how you’re going to get your two huge suitcases up to your fifth floor walk-up and realize that you smell like an airplane bathroom.
Before my overnight flight to Denmark, I sat at my desk-turned-vanity and put on a full face of makeup. As I made sure my eyeliner was perfectly winged, I thought about how seeing Copenhagen for the first time would feel worthy of a postcard...or at least a top notch Insta.
When I proceeded to Skype my best friend as a way to fill the six hours before I had to leave for the airport (which I arrived at four hours early, because “you never know”), she took one look at my face and laughed, asking why in the world I would be wearing makeup on an eight-hour flight. When I explained my Instagram moment to her, she told me to put makeup remover in my carry on and let her know how that went.
She was right, of course, and the makeup was off before the flight left the ground, to be replaced with those fun and fresh face creases created by attempts to sleep on my forearms. Luckily, I wasn’t the only one who expected my first few moments of life abroad to be much more glamorous than they turned out to be.
“I expected them to be so amazing and almost shiny, but it was rainy and I was jet lagged and the airport was confusing because of all that,” said Weinberg junior Abby Stratton, who studied in Paris this past summer.
After hearing for months about how beautiful Europe is, and how overcome we will feel by the very pavement we’re walking on, the reality of arrival can feel, well, anticlimactic.
“I expected it to feel more special and different than America, but I very quickly realized that it's just another place,” said Medill Sophomore Kaitlyn Budrow, who’s in Prague for the semester. “I'm walking on the same dirt and the buildings are made from the same stones and the people here are all the same species.”
Expectation: You’ll be reading a novel on a bench overlooking the water when suddenly a Danish/Italian/French/Spanish hottie sits down next to you. After a few minutes, he’ll shyly ask in beautifully accented English what you’re reading. You’ll proceed to talk about life and literature for hours, and as day turns to night he’ll ask if you want to get dinner at a little-known local spot.
Reality: You drunkenly make out with a douchey boy from your program at a bar populated primarily by Americans and realize the next day that he’s in your math class.
Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and also the fact that my own parents met abroad (though they’re both American), ruined me for what I thought romance would look like overseas. Despite how romantic the winding European streets overlooking the water might feel, they will not necessarily wind you straight into a relationship.
Instead, dating and hooking up overseas feel pretty similar to dating and hooking up back home. Unless your significant other still is back home, in which case things can get even trickier.
“Because I was working in Fiji for a month right before coming to Beijing, we’ll have been apart for six months before we see each other again,” said Amanda Leung, a Weinberg junior who has been with her boyfriend since freshman year. She, like just about everyone else whom I spoke with about doing long distance, concluded that being apart from a loved one for that long is, not-so-shockingly, a huge bummer.
For those of us actually open to the possibility of finding romance abroad, the stories that we’ve all heard about friends and friends of friends and professors and relatives falling in love with a native can create the impression that the loves of our lives are always just around the corner, or maybe the next bar over.
Emma Lane, a McCormick junior who’s on the same program as me, had a conversation with her grandparents the night before leaving that encapsulates this phenomenon perfectly.
“The last thing my grandma said to me was, ‘Now don’t let any Danes sweep you off your feet!’ and then from the background I heard my grandpa (who is Danish) yell, ‘Well Rose, that’s what you did. And then my grandma kind of laughed and said, ‘Okay, you can let a Dane sweep you off your feet, but only if you bring him back to visit us.”
Emma explained how between joking around with friends and the advice given to her from her grandma, she had, of course, thought about the “what-if” of hitting it off with a Dane. “But after being here for a month I realize meeting locals even as friends isn’t that easy, and mostly hope that my grandma isn’t too disappointed.”
Expectation: After at least a year of living away from home and being “completely independent,” you’ll have no trouble transferring these same adulting skills to a new country. Making new friends will be way easier than it was freshman year because you now know the type of people you click with, and besides, you’re way more together than you were that hot mess of a freshman year first quarter.
Reality: Not only are you a freshman in the eyes of the program that you’re on, but you’re also a freshman to the entire country and everyone can tell.
Traveling in packs: check. Walking at an inappropriate pace: check. Talking too loudly in a quiet place: also, check.
Just when you thought you outgrew name games, it turns out that you’re actually back where you started one, two or three years ago. Only this time, it’s not just the names of buildings and college-specific rituals you have to learn: it’s an entire country’s culture.
Just like every sophomore, junior and senior on campus can immediately spot the freshmen just through their freshman-y behavior (ahem purple lanyards with keys around their necks), locals can immediately spot study abroad students through our loud English-speaking, our ignorance of traffic laws — I wasn’t kidding when I said biking was a serious thing here, — and our obsessive need to find a place that serves brunch.
My program was a particularly egregious perpetrator of this freshman effect as all 1,500 of us swarmed the city in the attempt to obtain bicycles and get a picture in front of the colorful row of waterfront buildings my friends and I would come to call “Instagram Harbor.” The man who rented me my bike called our second day in Copenhagen “one of the worst days of his life” as he struggled to keep up with the influx of Americans.
Thankfully, most programs run an orientation reminiscent of Wildcat Welcome (minus the purple pride) designed to help integrate us into the daily life of our cities. Or, if not integrate us, then at least help us to stand out a little less.
“There was a lot of walking and small talk and early mornings. Everyone took pictures to send to their friends to prove how much fun they were having already,” said Budrow.
Besides just standing out and feeling the need to pretend that the adjustment is easier than it actually is, other inconveniences of being a freshman, like trying to figure out where the hell you’re going and how to keep yourself fed, also have a tendency to reappear.
“The dorms don’t have a kitchen, so I’ve been eating a lot of microwaveable snacks, which feels like the freshman year experience I didn’t have, since my dorm had a stove and an oven and a DINING HALL,” said Weinberg junior Kim Hill, who’s in Paris for the semester.
Just like leaving home for the first time meant learning to live without a mom to magically refill the q-tips before they ran out, living in a new country means figuring out where the eff to buy q-tips (CVS not being a thing here was my legitimate answer to someone asking my “least favorite thing about Denmark”). Hopefully, I’ll find a drugstore soon.
This piece is part of the ongoing series “Not a study abroad blog.” If you’re interested in being interviewed about your own experience abroad or in writing a post, please email one of the editors at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
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