The digital-first, student-run magazine of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Journalism Department

Embracing the imperfections of studying abroad

Traveling is thrilling, exhausting, confusing and amazing all at once.

December 6, 2016

“Going abroad is going to be the best five months of your life.”

Friends and family repeated this phrase to me in the days approaching my flight to Cape Town, South Africa. Everyone was eager to share their personal traveling experiences, intensifying my excitement for my upcoming adventure. However, a terrifying thought slowly crept into the back of my mind: what if I made a mistake and my semester wasnt enjoyable?

I hid my fears behind a plastered smile, embarrassed to admit that I was absolutely terrified to say goodbye to my home country. Luckily, it was easy to distract myself with packing lists, paperwork and doctors visits. In order to study in South Africa, I needed a Visa permitting me to live in the country for five months. However, numerous failed background checks, due to unreadable fingerprints, heightened my fear that the trip would be a chaotic disaster.

Twelve hours before my flight, my Visa arrived in the mail from the New York Consulate. Passport in hand, I stepped onto the plane and waved goodbye to my family. I was determined to make this semester a success. I refused to let myself fall into a downwards spiral of sadness and fear.

The first night in Cape Town I rode into the city with four exchange students. As we drove, we watched the city lights pulse rhythmically along the highway. They remarked how beautiful the view was, excitedly planning our adventures for the next five months. I sat there in silence, feeling incredibly helpless and vulnerable. I traveled to various areas of the world in the past but did not anticipate the degree of culture shock I would experience upon arrival.

In Cederberg, travelers often climb the rock because of it's resemblance to an elephant.

In Cederberg, travelers often climb the rock because of its resemblance to an elephant. (Adrienne Gagne/Amherst Wire)

In the flatlands of the city, people live in underdeveloped living areas, referred to as townships. In these areas gang violence can become so persistent, people cannot leave their houses for days at a time to avoid the rapid fire of bullets that plague the community.

For many including myself, personal safety was never an issue. However, I quickly learned that privilege has absolutely nothing to do with the ability to buy expensive cars or own a walk-in closet. Privilege is marked by the ability to feel safe in your environment, to have a reliable support system and to never feel judged by the color of our skin. I felt guilt and shame for the out of sight, out of mindcomplex I had adopted for a large portion of my life.

Sand boarding on the dunes outside of the city.

Sand boarding on the dunes outside of the city. (Adrienne Gagne/Amherst Wire)

It took a while for me to become comfortable with my surroundings and educate myself about the citys history. In order to get myself through the homesickness, I refused to close myself off from the world. Luckily, it wasnt hard to keep busy in Cape Town. I focused on my psychology research project and participated in a volunteer program. I was open with my friends about the sadness, dragging myself out of bed even when I didnt want to. My goal was to participate in at least one activity every weekend that would immerse me in the South African culture.

 

Hiking in Cederberg.

Hiking in Cederberg, a secluded mountain range known for its incredible botanical diversity and hidden waterfalls. (Adrienne Gagne/Amherst Wire)

Studying abroad doesnt have to be perfect all of the time. One of the reasons the transition felt so difficult was because I was paralyzed by the pressure to have a perfect semester.Oftentimes I felt guilty for experiencing any sort of emotion other than elated happiness. However, its important to remember that nothing can be perfect all of the time. A few bad days will not negate the countless positive memories you will create during your trip.

 

 

Surfing in Muizenberg.

Surfing in Muizenberg: renting a board and wetsuit for the day can cost a traveler less than $10 in US currency. (Adrienne Gagne/Amherst Wire)

Every time I drove past the same stretch of road overlooking the city, I looked out at the blinking lights. Two months into my trip the view stopped symbolizing a foreign country I didnt belong to. Traveling is thrilling, exhausting, confusing and amazing all at once. No two experiences will be exactly the same, but if you continue to break out of your comfort zone, you will absolutely value your semester abroad.

 

Email Adrienne at acgagne@umass.edu or follow her on Twitter @adrienne729.

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