Coming back is not the same as never leaving – the hardest part of studying abroad
Studying abroad. Leaving your safe nest to move away for 6 months, maybe a year, maybe longer. Most of the students at this point are still dependent on their parents or financial aid. The majority of the expats isn’t used to fixing problems themselves, keeping their finances in check and figuring everything out on their own. It’s not their fault, our student years are supposed to be carefree before we have to dive into the real, working world. But suddenly you’re dropped in a strange city and while they promise you can rely on the support of the university, in reality you’re on your own. Some get lost for a little while. Others love the freedom and just roll with the punches. What if I told you that taking the big step and moving to a different country isn’t the hardest part of studying abroad? What if I told you having to leave again and moving back ‘home’ is way worse?
“Coming back is not the same as never leaving.” – Terry Pratchett
I am one of the lucky ones that got to spend a semester last year in Amsterdam. Yes, not very exotic or far away from my home city. This doesn’t mean that it wasn’t an extraordinary experience. I was already used to living on my own, doing my own groceries and washing my own clothes. Suddenly I had to trade in the freedom of having a whole apartment to myself for sharing a floor with 11 other people. I was scared of only having 12 square meters to myself and having to share the bathrooms, kitchen and living room with a bunch of strangers. Imagine my surprise when it turned out I would be living with 10 boys and only one other girl…
What have I done? Did I make a mistake coming here? Will they like me? Will the boys let me into their group? Will this floor get incredible dirty? Will I be able to keep up with the courses I’m taking? Will this help me get a better job? Won’t there be a lot of noise and parties every night? Will I be able to stay in touch with my friends at home? Will they forget about me? Will the boys behave? Will I accidentally walk into them peeing once in a while?
If you’re interested, the answer to the last question is definitely yes 🙂 Surprisingly enough, our floor was pretty clean though. We even had a whole system where every week we rotated and cleaned our home away from home together. From the beginning we were motivated to get to know each other and spend time together. We organized a community dinner every week, watched a lot of movies together and basically hung out every day after the initial awkward phase. For me, it took some time to open up and feel comfortable. I’d like to think of myself as a spontaneous and confident person but I felt pretty insecure in the beginning. I arrived in Amsterdam as one of the last people and everybody already seemed to know each other. They already bonded over a lot of drinks at the welcoming party and I felt a bit like an outsider. I have to admit, I hid in my room a lot in the beginning. Fortunately, a few of the guys were really driven to get everybody to join the family and somehow I got sucked in. And boy, am I glad that I did. I started warming up and feeling like I could be myself in the group. I started hanging out in our living room more and joining activities outdoors too. In the six months I lived in Amsterdam, our floor turned into a small family. 12 people from all over the world, with different backgrounds and different interests. Somehow everything matched and I was able to have some of the most intense and real experiences I had ever had.
We all came to Amsterdam to learn. Not just to learn psychology or economics or computer science. We came with the desire, hope and maybe need to learn about other cultures, the diverse world that’s out there, the different perspectives we never thought about, the different customs. I’m pretty sure all of us also came to learn about ourselves and to figure out what we need to be happy. I experienced that the majority of the people I met abroad were somehow struggling. Some didn’t feel happy in their own country because they didn’t agree with the local beliefs, practices, government or the corruption. Some didn’t feel satisfied by the limited opportunities their own city had to offer and held bigger dreams. Some didn’t feel happy in their own skin and hoped to find themselves in a different environment. Some were struggling with past experiences and were hoping to be able to outrun them somehow. Some thought new people would be able to change them. I sure could check off some of these statements. Even though not everybody spoke out these insecurities, it was present in an implicit way. I could feel the need for something different, the drive to experience something new each day and to not take anything for granted. This made it possible to have more real conversations than most of the ones I have with my friends in Belgium.
“Traveling tends to magnify all human emotions.” – Peter Hoeg
I’m not saying everybody who decides to study abroad is unhappy. I met a few people who were perfectly fine at their home and these were the people who didn’t manage to build a new one abroad. The people who were somehow struggling or looking to find something, are the people who had the most intense experience. I feel like they learned the most, experienced the most and lived the fullest. The upside (or downside, however you want to define it) is that the first category didn’t have any problem going back home. They finished their six months, said goodbye and didn’t really stay in touch. They felt no need to hold onto something that’s in the past. The second group however had more difficulties. Some us of fell into a black hole. We were so motivated to change our lives and do things differently once we moved back. That motivation stayed for about a week. We experienced that not a lot of people care about your extensive stories of the adventures you had abroad. Nobody wants to hear how it was life changing and how much you learned and lived. And unconsciously you get sucked into your old life again.
You get together with your same old friends and get back to the same superficial conversations. At the same time, we try to hold onto the friendships we built and the person we tried so hard to become. It’s not easy to stay in touch with people who live in different continents. It’s also not easy to stay in touch with the person you want to be while everybody still treats you like the one you were before you left. I struggled with finding my place again because my home didn’t feel like it was mine anymore. I didn’t feel like there was a lot to come back to. I still have difficulties putting the experience into words. I felt sad and lonely for some time. I was lucky enough that I wasn’t alone with these feelings and was able to talk to some of my family from Amsterdam. You do have to invest to keep the friendship alive. I believe that we did a good job on this front. A part of the floor still keeps in touch regularly and I went to visit some of my best friends in Brazil and Serbia. Next week I’m travelling to Lebanon to meet up again.
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” ― Henry Miller
For me a big part of the journey of studying abroad was coming home again. You can decide that your experience ends at that point. Maybe it’s easier that way, to leave it all behind and not look back. Looking back hurts. Looking back also brings a lot of joy and good memories. For me, the international experience still isn’t over. Studying abroad opened a lot of doors and gave me the opportunity to travel to a lot of different places. I plan to visit every person I lived with and had a personal bond with in Amsterdam to get to know their other home. So who’s next?
This was a personal ramble about my own experience abroad. In my next post I’ll integrate some psychological research about the difficulties of coming back and tell you how studying abroad can significantly change your personality!
Would you consider going abroad or have done already? How did you experience this? What do you think of my ideas? Please let me know!