Let’s Take a Look at the Whole Thing

I sit here on April 2 on my flight back to London, where I’ll be taking a bus “home” to Leicester after 30 days of traveling. I feel like for the first time I’ve really started to get a grasp on everything, the entirety of it. What studying abroad means, what it does for you, all that stuff.

I’ve traveled around a decent amount now. I’ve been in school a decent amount. I’ve had some of the highs of my life. I’ve had some of the lows of my life. It’s starting to feel like a complete experience (oh man let’s count how many times I use that word in this post).

And although I still have two weeks of exams, and another 3-4 weeks after that before I finally head back to the States in mid June, this is my last blog post. So I think it’s time to get a little reflective, and provide some insight for any of you who may be debating whether or not to study abroad in the future.

“This atmosphere that you throw yourself into — just by being abroad and being a foreigner — is something that is unmatched and you must experience for yourself.”

I’ll begin by laying out what I feel like this semester abroad has done for me. The first thing that comes to mind is the people that it has put me in contact with. Whether it was here at the university or at random hostels throughout Europe, the number of people I’ve met and became close with is substantial, and extremely rewarding.

Sometimes the interactions would be just be a small conversation or a night hanging out, but it was still very exciting to hear what people had to say and how they acted. I found people who had obviously come from an entirely different perspective than me, yet still clearly have similar ambitions and desires about traveling. This creates a unique culture that I will certainly miss for years to come.

Without being too cliche, the amount of enlightening discussions I’ve had with these people changed me. It allowed me to get a pretty good sense of the rest of the world. Among many other things, I got a sense of America’s role in the rest of the world and how people from different places view us; Good or bad, America is by far the most influential country in the world, and you notice that quickly. I swear the majority of people I’ve met abroad care more about American pop culture than Americans do.

It also seemed that most of these interactions, no matter the depth, ended with an add on Facebook or Snapchat and a simple “let me know if you ever need a place to stay in Australia, or Croatia, or Florida, or Spain, or *enter wherever they’re from here*,” followed by what eventually became an automatic reply “and if you’re ever in California don’t hesitate to hit me up.”  You should really see my Snapchat map, it’s impressive.

This atmosphere that you throw yourself into — just by being abroad and being a foreigner — is something that is unmatched and you must experience for yourself.

Another aspect of studying abroad that is worth noting are the life skills it improves. I mean you’re really in another country by yourself. Starting from scratch. I remember a few moments specifically. One was the first day I arrived in England. There was nobody to pick me up from the airport or greet me when I finally found my way to campus. The other was my first time entering a country that didn’t speak English (Luxembourg) while traveling by myself.

Both situations were pretty scary. I didn’t know what to expect or where to go, and both times I didn’t have a phone plan set up. Situations like these leave you nervous and uneasy, and they force you to, well, figure it out. However you can.

Situations like these hone your ability to read signs and maps, have a sense of direction, understand public transit, ask for help and operate without data or wifi — a tool that we rely on so often. Because of my experiences, I will now be far more confident when put in similar positions in the future.

On a similar note, the experience of planning extensive trips and executing those plans (making early trains, navigating airports, checking into hostels), along with budgeting and figuring out how much you can spend, is no small task. Again, these are all things that will help me later on.

The last thing I’d like to touch on is the inevitability of homesickness. You can’t underestimate how hard it hits you. Going to school in San Diego — a mere 8 hour drive (or hour flight) from home — is one thing, and it was admittedly pretty difficult as a freshman. But being 5,000 miles away is another.

While abroad you’ll find weather that’s different than what you’re used to, people who talk different than what you’re used to and food that tastes different than what you’re used to. I’ve talked about culture shock before, and you get used to it and comfortable with it. But it does wear on you, and you find yourself missing home a lot more than usual, even though you’re spending roughly the same amount of time away from your hometown as a normal semester back home.

You look at social media and you see your college friends doing things that you’d normally be doing with them. You see your high school friends going home for summer before you. You see your family just being a family — without you. You feel left out, and it makes you feel lonely, sometimes isolated.

When I was on the move throughout Europe and in a few airports, I would look up at the board to find my flight, and occasionally see a “SAN FRANCISCO,” or a “LOS ANGELES,” along with many other American cities. It’d all feel so close.

But at the same time, the ability to function with this unfamiliar independence is something I’ll take with me as I head into my junior and senior years of college, when I’ll likely stop coming home for summers due to internships or jobs. Obviously, the same goes for after that, in grad school or whatever career I may pursue, when home isn’t my parents house anymore, and all of my friends are doing their own thing as well.

I feel like I am now better prepared to deal with those inevitabilities that are not too far off.

I could go on and on with other specific details about how my time in the UK and the rest of Europe has affected me, but I tried to narrow it down to the few points that I believe are the most important or significant ones. When it comes down to it, studying abroad this semester has been amazing for me. I’ve learned a million things about other cultures and myself, and I feel like, overall, it has made me a better person.

With that said, if you do choose to study abroad (you should you should you should), what you need to realize is no matter where you go, it is what you make of it. The destination and university could be perfect, but if you don’t put in the effort to meet people and put yourself in some of those uncomfortable situations, then the experience won’t allow you to grow as much as you could have.

One final note: If you study abroad and are offered the opportunity to contribute to this blog, do it. The people involved are great and very understanding. It’s not too demanding. And it really is pretty fun to write to an audience (no matter how big or small). Although at times it will just kind of show up on your “to do” list or planner as another thing that you probably don’t feel like doing at the time, it provides a platform and forces you to sit down, gather your thoughts and experiences, and write them down all in one places. Essentially, it’s a journal. But it’s better, because you get to share it with others.

Let me tell you, I tried to bring a journal to Europe and I really did want to be consistent writing in it. But it is extremely difficult to keep up with. You get busy with life, and when there is nothing holding you to contributing to your journal, it is so easy to forget or to just not feel the need to write in it. This blog, on the other hand, was an effective tool in holding you to it. You end up putting a lot of effort in because you know other people are going to read it, and I’m sure that is something that my future self is going to thank me for as I look back on my time abroad through these posts.

Pictures are fantastic, memories even better, but your thoughts, feelings and emotions throughout the entire semester are what come about in these posts. This blog brings out the whole experience. And I think that’s priceless.

And here I’ll add pictures of some of my favorite places I’ve been. Hopefully you’ll be able to experience as well!

Davis Elgin is a second year applied mathematics major. He is studying at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom for the entire spring semester.

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