Studying Abroad: What to Know Before You Go

Vanessa Lynn DeSantis is a young soul with a mature mind who happens to have frequent overwhelming desires to run through corn fields. She is a recent graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) where she earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology. Here, Vanessa was an EOF (Educational Opportunity Fund) Scholarship student, and soon after became a member of Chi Alpha Epsilon National Honors Society. Vanessa was also very active in the Greek organization Phi Sigma Sigma, as well as various other campus clubs and involvements- such as Alternative Spring Break and Gospel Choir. In addition to these, Vanessa worked as a Resident Assistant (RA) for two years and an administrative assistant for four years at multiple university departments. During the fall of her senior year, Vanessa spent the semester studying abroad in Oxfordshire, England- where she also had the opportunity to travel through more of England, Scotland and France. Vanessa paid her own way through college during her four years at FDU, and continues to support herself financially. She is extremely passionate about her major, has a deep interest in the mind of the individual, and always loves to learn and try new things. Some of her favorite hobbies include writing, traveling, hiking, yoga, music listening, spending time outdoors, and wine tasting.

“Every dreamer knows that it is entirely possible to be homesick for a place you’ve never been to, perhaps more homesick than for familiar ground.” Judith Thurman perfectly articulates the scrambled letters in my body, of which my brain lacked the ability to form into words. Upon making my decision to spend a semester in Oxfordshire, England, I was entirely overjoyed. When I thought of how my experience might be, a utopia-themed picture formed in my head, as did a plethora of other happenings. I sang “Feeling Good” to myself on an hourly basis, for starters. And every daydream I had consisted of me either frolicking through sheep-roaming grasslands or sipping tea with people I considered exquisite. I was completely carefree and utterly ecstatic in my fantasies. I just wanted to live my dream. And within time, I realized it was just that: a dream.

If you’re thinking about studying abroad, my first word of advice to you is this:

Number One: “A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” -Lao Tzu. Pick up your dream goggles, take them to your nearest trash can, and close the lid.

Dream goggles are the name I like to give to the word “expectations”. So often throughout life we imagine our futures to be only what we want them to be. And before we know it, we can go living our lives with inaccurate perspectives, and our time has passed us. I call them dream goggles because they are, in every sense of the word, goggles. They are thick, over-the top, and prevent all other substances from coming in. In the same sense, our expectations are often skewed, self-righteous, and exaggerated perceptions of a world yet to come. This can be explained by the fact that when we expect a certain outcome, we will look for (and ultimately, find) all the things we come across that we believe prove our ideas about the future true. From this, it could easily be thought that if we expect the best-we will see the best. And that doesn’t sound too bad at first glance. But the problem with this is that if we don’t experience what we anticipated- even if it is slightly off- we will get disappointed. So be careful of how you imagine your time abroad to be. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be optimistic or excited about our future. All I’m saying is the fewer expectations you have, the more you will appreciate all the wonderful things that will happen when you study abroad. But if you’re going to have any expectations, be especially careful to not expect it to be perfect. Because here’s the real deal:
If you’re studying abroad for a semester, you’re going to have an amazing time. But it’s also true that no matter where you go, you’re going to have bad days. It’s going to happen, because no human being goes three and a half months without having at least two bad days. To be frank, you might even have some awful days. The schoolwork, your expenses, the people around you, adjusting to an entirely different culture, learning to balance your work and play….it’s going to be stressful. But this is also the truth: It will be a good kind of stressful. It will be like your first day of kindergarten all over again…a terrifying, beautiful kind of stress.
And here’s the even-truer truth: only you can decide what kind of experience you’ll have. You may find studying abroad to be extremely challenging, or you may find it to be as challenging as a walk in the park. It all depends on you, and how you go into it. So instead of having great big expectations, just try to have none. You’ll see yourself a whole lot more satisfied if you’re completely unbiased.

Here is something else to consider before you book that plane ticket:

Number Two: “I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” -Mark Twain. When you decide to go, go with your closest friends.

This was, by far, the most epic mistake I made in my decision to study in another country. When I traveled to England, I went virtually by myself, although I did have some of my sorority sisters who went with me at the same time. I figured I was bound to like and be friends with at least certain people there. I was close with one of my sorority sisters who studied abroad with me at the same time, but she had a completely different group of friends… who liked to make fun of people who weren’t as smart as them. This was something I didn’t appreciate, as kindness is one of my greatest values. Then there was another girl I was just as close with who I experienced the same type of issue with. The only difference was that her friends enjoyed making fun at different kinds of people- ones who were “unattractive” or took extra notes during lectures. One of the girls even named a specifically targeted group they liked to make fun of “The Goon Squad”. I felt like I was in middle school, and I didn’t know how to get out of it. Neither of the two girls liked one another, so I couldn’t form a group with the two of them. And spending time with each of them individually was a rare occurrence, as they were frequently with their groups of friends. It was a bit of a nightmare.
Please don’t get me wrong. I spent time with these people. Lots of time. I tried to get to know each individual personally, giving each one the benefit of the doubt. But after about three weeks, I couldn’t take it anymore. I heard each one of them call other people awful names that I can’t even write in here. I even heard one of them saying that another person should kill themselves. It was beyond awful. I soon took to spending most of my hours alone, which was extremely challenging for me, as it would be for anyone. The other students could tell I was feeling sad and upset, because I was. They thought something awful had happened to me. But nothing awful happened at all. No one did anything to me personally to make me feel bad; I just felt that way because I disliked those around me… Please note that I’m not a picky person, and I’m not a people-hater either. (Every time I take the Myers-Briggs test, my results come back that I’m half introverted and half an extrovert). I love people just as much as I love spending time by myself. But what I don’t enjoy is being around people that are superficial and mean. And that’s unfortunately the worst of what I had to deal with during my stay.
But I got through it. My psychology professor became my personal therapist. It all started when I saw him walking the Abbey (the building that we all lived in) one day looking particularly upset. When I asked him what was wrong, he told me it was the people around him- that they were like insects just nipping at him from every direction. I looked at him, in the purest mixture of disbelief and relief that I had ever possessed, and was so happy that he felt the same way I did. And then I thought to myself, “If a 50+ dignified professor with a doctorate degree in psychology from a prestigious university is visibly bothered by these people- I was not the main source of the issue. The other people are (most likely) actually awful”. We talked every day from there on out about the same people, and how negative they were. Those conversations were so invaluable to me. I realized that maybe I was just too mature for these kids I was surrounded by. And eventually, I rose above them. However, I could have had a much greater experience had I been surrounded by extraordinary people.
Despite the struggles I faced, I do not regret my decision to study abroad. Because I really did have the time of my life. And if I can go through what I went through and still look back on it and be glad I went, you certainly can too. I’m happy about my experience for more reasons than I can name. But let me try: I was able to experience an entirely different kind of culture that I had never known before, and enhance my studies simultaneously. I even got to share some memories I will never forget with my peers, even though they weren’t my friends. And out of the experience, I received gifts beyond numerical measure. The Abbey became my home that I can return to whenever I want, along with the country of England. The professors I grew to know at a deep personal level became (and still remain) family to me. And Oxfordshire will always be another place I call home. No negativity from any obnoxious individual who accompanied me could take that away. I look back at my time in England, and I will always remember all of the wonderful memories I had there, because there were so many of them. And upon returning to America, I was a changed woman- for the better. I grew in my strength, self-awareness, confidence, and overall intelligence. My friends back at home noticed a difference before I even did. And what’s more, I was also very lucky in my adventures.
I was lucky in my travels because I did, in fact, get to frolic through sheep-roaming grasslands. And I also sipped tea with people I considered exquisite- every weekday afternoon around 12:45 and again at approximately 3:30. And it was even more amazing as I dreamed it would have been. So if you absolutely cannot stop yourself from dreaming, consider believing that certain parts of your dream can actually come true.

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