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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 wasn’t 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 doctor’s 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 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 mind” complex I had adopted for a large portion of my life.
It took a while for me to become comfortable with my surroundings and educate myself about the city’s history. In order to get myself through the homesickness, I refused to close myself off from the world. Luckily, it wasn’t 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 didn’t want to. My goal was to participate in at least one activity every weekend that would immerse me in the South African culture.
Studying abroad doesn’t 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, it’s 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.
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 didn’t 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @