Column, Opinions

Dispatches from Abroad: Week 2

Students, imagine this: the beating sun teaming up with choking humidity on the hottest of August days; hordes of young people with glow sticks on a lawn; organized events around a stage scheduled sporadically throughout the day.

It could be a music festival. But in fact, it was Boston College’s very own Welcome Week.

If you’re anything like me, Welcome Week might have been the worst time you’ve had at BC. Nothing against Welcome Week, but, boy, was that long. And my first few days abroad were kind of like that, but worse. 

After all the excitement and sarcastic-but-not-really pronouncements that “abroad changed me!” from friends who went abroad in the fall, I’ve been thinking about how I could possibly be comparing anything from this amazing opportunity (“Only 1 percent of American college students study abroad!” I was told so many times) to Welcome Week. Besides being completely caught off guard by any feeling other than pure elation (that one’s my bad, I should have been a bit warier), I feel as though I just tried a dessert that was pretty to look at, but bitter to taste. Mix up an unassuming foundation of “being in a different country,” bake in a whole lot of “being alone,” frost it with “a campus of American students who came from the same school, which isn’t BC,” and sprinkle “two and a half years of memories with your closest friends, who are all still together for the entire semester making more memories without you” on top. You get the perfect recipe for emotional disaster.

Okay, that’s a bit dramatic—it’s more complex than that. There’s been a hint of sweetness in this entirely too bitter first taste of studying abroad (umami, maybe?). [Sidenote: Sorry about the perpetual food metaphor, but you’ve got a girl who orients her life around when her next meal will be living in a country whose reputation is (to my estimate) 70 percent based on food. The other 30 percent, if you’re curious, is based on art, really old buildings that tend to be a little broken or crooked, and names that end in -us, -ius, or Caesar. I’m just sticking with what I know.

Let me break this down some more.

First, I am having a great time in said foreign country, especially now that orientation is over. I will admit that I did enjoy certain parts of orientation: Some of the day trips were really cool, and I never would have gone on them myself. However, there were lots of breaks in the schedule, moments of boredom, and situations where I’ve felt stuck and inarticulate. While I know I would have encountered those moments without the orientation, at least I would have been the one accountable. 

Second, I’m studying through an external program. Only two students from BC, including myself, are attending it this semester. I didn’t know the other student before I got here, so I really was coming into this alone. 

Third, I think too much. I get a little stressed thinking about a year and a half from now, when my college friends and I will have separate lives in different cities. When I’ll rarely see the people I spent most of my days with for four years. And to make matters worse, I’ve just shortened that by half a year. I’ve gotten comfortable at BC, which in the grand scheme of things—because college is so short in the grand scheme of things—isn’t a particularly good thing. 

Fourth, I am fairly introverted, and I love doing things on my own. I have no problem being alone—in fact, a lot of my most vivid memories of the places I’ve visited come from moments that I spent wandering by myself. But revisiting my first point, trying to live, even for just a few months, in a country I’ve never even visited before isn’t as glamorous as I thought it would be. The language barrier on top of my own unfamiliarity with the not just the city’s culture, but that of the entire country, creates more challenges than I expected. Instead of blending and observing, I stick out and am observed.

While I enjoy any opportunity to exercise my independence, I hadn’t really thought about the fact that I would be throwing myself into such a small group of students, most of whom were already familiar with one another. Being alone among a bunch of people who are already together, and feeling like you wouldn’t have a “together” to join if you wanted to, exacerbates the worst parts of aloneness. That’s when aloneness turns to loneliness. 

Even freshman year, I had never felt as lonely at BC as I did my first few days here. Freshman year, I could take comfort in the fact that I wasn’t alone in my aloneness. I didn’t really have that comfort here, so on top of the previous four points, missing my family, my friends at BC who are all together, and the familiarity of the United States made matters a little bit worse. 

As a silver lining, though, we all know what to expect at orientations: organized talks and structured social events, waking up earlier than you’d like to, planned trips intended to expose you to the area. I’m sure there’s a sweet spot somewhere where the pros outweigh the cons, but I have yet to experience an orientation that hits it. I’d just as well be thrown in blind than go through so many days of forced friend-making and hours of speeches from administrators. 

The biggest consolation is that everyone feels the same way. In the worst of social scenarios, all I had to say was, “I hate orientation,” and I had a momentary talking point. And one day, it worked to my advantage, when I forced my way into a small group through a combination of mutual hatred of orientation and vague recognition by the girl whose parents bonded with mine in Peanuts-like adult garble while we both waited silently to check our bags at the airport. But that’s another story. 

February 9, 2020