What I Wish I Knew: Study abroad equals freshman fall

The Palace of Westminster and Big Ben are pictured in January. Courtesy Abby Stern
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Three years ago, as a first-semester freshman, I somehow made friends, found my way around a new city, survived living on my own and experienced new classes, all while watching people I knew on social media seemingly have the time of their lives.

To be completely honest, it sucked.  Being a freshman is pretty universally acknowledged to be incredibly difficult, and when my first semester at Tufts ended, I was so thankful that I would never have to go through that experience again.

What I wish I knew is that starting study abroad is basically like doing freshman fall all over again.

In the same manner in which I had arrived at Tufts three years before, I landed in London with no friends, no understanding of the city’s workings, no experience living alone in Europe and no knowledge of how to be a university student in a place that is not America.

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Like a baby Jumbo stumbling into Dewick on her first day of Orientation Week, I arrived in London after a red-eye flight (where I had slept three hours total) with two suitcases, a chest full of anxiety and no idea how to hail a cab at Heathrow Airport.

When I finally found the cab stand and loaded my bags into the back seat of a massive black SUV, the driver asked me where to go. I gave him the address for my dorm, and he asked, “Oh, that’s in Camden, right?” I replied, “If you say so!”

When I reached my dorm, I lugged my bags up to my new room, my supposed home for the next five months. And, because I am being completely honest by telling you what I wish I had known would happen, I immediately plopped down on the bed and proceeded to have a full-fledged anxiety attack. I spent my first three hours in London, England on the phone with my mommy as she tried to calm me down from across an ocean.

For my first week in London, it felt like every five minutes there was some massive crisis that I, as the sole adult in my own life, needed to handle. My U.K. debit card wouldn’t work, so I had no access to my own money. I got rejected from one of my classes two days before the term began. I couldn’t get the SIM card I needed because I didn’t have proof that I live in the U.K. because I don’t live in the U.K. My entire life felt like an overwhelming, anxiety-inducing, horrible mess.

About a week after landing in London, I brought up these feelings to a friend of mine studying abroad in Paris. The healing powers of relief enveloped me when she confessed she felt the exact same. I then cautiously broached these feelings with a girl I met in London while we were grabbing dinner, and both of us could have cried with relief after she confessed she felt the same way too.

I want to talk more about the messy, difficult and objectively bad parts of my study abroad experience because they are just as important as the life-changing, awe-inspiring, massively exciting memories I have already made. Talking about my Day 1 anxiety attack and my debit card crisis is just as important a part of my experience to share as the fact that I ate the most amazing steak and chips at Camden Market, danced on stage at a club in Shoreditch, basked in the glory of Buckingham Palace, went to a bunch of pubs with my new friends, took photos on Westminster Bridge and bought yellow daisies at the Columbia Road flower market.  When it comes to what I wish I knew, I wish I had known that there is no compartmentalizing the good and the bad of my experience so far. There is only my experience, the whole of it. And, whether good or bad or a bit of both, I can’t wait to find out what more there is to know.

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