If you’re one of those people who can jump feet-first into situations without doubting yourself even once, then I applaud you. But, like a lot of people, I definitely cannot do that. And while I didn’t have many doubts or regrets before or during the process, the second I jumped on that plane from London Gatwick to Los Angeles International in September, I was greeted not just by sun, sea and sand but by an onslaught of questions, doubts and fears that I might have tripped up somewhere down the line. Studying abroad is a massive rollercoaster of a journey, and if – like me – you’re a perpetual worrier who is prone to overthinking, then you will inevitably end up asking yourself a few difficult questions about your choices and motivations along the way.
One thing I didn’t quite grasp is that these worries – however bizarre they may sound in your head – are normal. You may think you’re being stupid or selfish for fretting over whether you picked the right location as you sit in the sun reading texts from your friends back in rainy England, but doubts don’t mean you’re taking your opportunity for granted or wasting your time: in fact, it’s often anything but. A lot of the time we see the highlights of someone’s study abroad through pretty Instagram snaps of hoards of smiling friends and stunning sunsets and redbrick campuses, just trying to make us jealous (sorry UEA, you’re pretty in your own way.) But while this may make it seem like everyone is having the time of their lives while we have unspeakable, irrational doubts, the truth is we’re comparing our lowest moments to other people’s highlights reels. It wasn’t until speaking to a handful of friends about their emotions a few months into their study abroad experience that I started to realise that nearly every study abroad experience has hidden, behind-the-camera moments of worry; we just don’t like to talk about it.
So for those of you out there, far from home, wondering if you’re the only person in the world who has doubts about what was supposed to be the opportunity of a lifetime, and for those of you considering embarking on one but can’t get those worries out of your head, I’d like to bare my doubts and regrets that I was sure were irrational until I began hearing other people too scared to admit the same. The real truth in all of this is – hopefully – that not that every study abroad moment is a camera reel masterpiece from opening to closing shot, but that you can still have an experience of a lifetime with a few relatable self-doubts scattered in between. I’m hoping that talking through some of my frets and the conclusions I am beginning to come to in spite of them will be helpful in reminding others that, in one of the most stressful experiences you can have, you don’t have to do it perfectly to reap the rewards.
1. Fear You Chose the Wrong Location
I can hear it now – “but Emma, you’re in Los Angeles!” Well the truth – as I found when staying in a hostel in Hollywood those first few nights in the city – is that many parts of Los Angeles are undeniably victims of their own success: if you have a rose-tinted view of your new home, overflowing with airbrushed, glossy magazine-photoshoot expectations, then you may well be left wanting. It’s perfectly okay to feel disappointed, and I definitely am not the first person to end up internally (and often verbally) comparing London and L.A. until I land at the conclusion that London is better. But of course I am biased, and it holds true that your ‘new home’ will probably not be able to replace the place where your heart really lies. However, there’s undeniably going to be hidden gems wherever you are: they’re unlikely to come in the tourist hubs that the guides tell you to hang out in, but don’t be discouraged from going out to explore, because you may well fall in love with that back-corner coffee shop or blossoming rooftop garden you find on your travels.
This point can extend far beyond the city in question. I’ve always been a campus girl, and UCLA is undeniably a campus, but while I knew the statistics – I’m an obsessive researcher after all – I hadn’t quite comprehended just how big it was, and how easy it is sometimes to feel like a small fish in a veritable ocean of thousands. And while I’ve definitely had moments of isolation where I question why I chose such a daunting sea of a university instead of the tonnes of small, close-knit options on my choices list, I’ll often find that doubt fading away when I go to one of my classes and realise that I probably wouldn’t be getting that education anywhere else (and of course I’d compared class choices long before committing to my decisions). In reality, a place is very rarely perfect, but if it aligns with your priority, you’ll find something that matters to you to remind you why you’re there.
2. Fear You Chose the Wrong Accommodation
Halls or apartments? University or private? It’s a question we ask ourselves lots before starting university at home, and those choices we make often set a precedent for the years to come. I hated halls in my first year at UEA, and thought they’d be a thousand times worse in cramped American dorms, so I was adamant to live in an apartment. There have been many things that have made me regret this choice – oh, how I long for a meal plan in finals week! – and I’ve often found myself thinking ‘you can’t complain, your friend didn’t get to choose at all!’ Yes, I was lucky to have the decision, and take the power into my own hands, and who knows, my choice might have been a wrong one. But dwelling on it won’t prompt a replay button, so it’s best to accept that I’m saving money but compromising on meeting people, and then continue to ask my friend from the dorms to swipe me into the dining halls for the odd all-you-can-eat lunch.
3. Regret Leaving Your Family and Friends
For most people, this is unsurprisingly the biggest regret, yet there are so few people prepared to talk about it. Studying abroad may well be the furthest you’ve been from family, for the longest period – it easily was for me. And while fate can throw a curveball (in my case, in the form of a family car accident) that makes you ask yourself a hundred times over if you are in the right place or if you should pack it all in and go home, the thing that keeps me pushing through most days is that my family wouldn’t want me to. Not in a cruel way, but in a ‘we’re proud of what you’re doing and think you would regret leaving’ way. Saying this – and obviously I have ultimately made the decision to stay, which not everyone does in the end – six months in, there’s still not a day that goes by where I don’t wish to be lounging around at home with my dad, or sat in the pub with my friend, or staying up until 4am watching TV with my housemate. And there’s been multiple times I have called my dad, or my mum, or my best friends (or all of them) and cried about how I want to be home. It’s a strenuous process, and my approach to it fluctuates day-by-day: just last night I was writing a poem for my workshop that reeked so much of homesickness that my professor asked me this morning how I was feeling. But as I write this now, I know that while it hurts sometimes, I’m doing the right thing for me. I also know that if it got to a stage where I wasn’t, and I had to get back on that plane home, realistically I would have the support behind me and I should be proud of what I have achieved regardless.
4. Worry You Are Not Getting ‘Involved Enough’
There’s a massive pressure on young people nowadays to ‘get involved’ all the time in everything: boost the CV, make yourself employable with extracurriculars. This approach is especially well-regarded here in America, where they sometimes seem to care much more if you’ve been the president of two societies and a sorority than how well you can present yourself academically. For a lot of people in transition, throwing yourself headfirst into football teams and book clubs can take your mind off it. For me, when I first arrived and was getting used to exploring the world around me and the difference in academic and social expectations, I only had time for one club without pushing myself to exhaustion. The questions started to build – “are you wasting an opportunity?” “surely you’d have more friends if you did this?” – and to an extent all of that was true. But while you’ll meet people in America who are so used to jumping from class to activity to the gym to a meeting and still have time to cook before bed, remember that half of them have been at it for years in the same place and are familiar with this routine, and the other half may well just be more motivated than you; you’re already pushing yourself out of your comfort zone in going, and while you want to try new things and make memories you wouldn’t have elsewhere, you don’t have to wreck your emotional or physical wellbeing just to say that you’ve achieved something. Go at your own pace, do what makes you feel good, and in five years time you almost certainly won’t care that you missed that tennis try-out.
5. Fear of Missing Out
Thinking back to the Instagram Issue (as I am now determined to call it), there are so many people who will come flocking to your posts and your inbox to tell you how “you must be having the most incredible time in LA!” as a result of your last picture-perfect sunset scene. If – like me – you end up leaving late, you’ll have been thinking the same as your classmates all start sharing their study abroad experiences before you’ve left the UK. But many people forget that when you’re the only one away and you can see life at home going on without you, it can begin to feel like you’re the one missing out – like your friends aren’t missing you as they go about as usual. This inverse fear of missing out can be incredibly isolating, but also guilt-evoking: at the end of the day, they’re the ones missing out on a life-changing opportunity, while you’re just missing out on another night of drinking in a friend’s kitchen, right? Truth is, it’s okay to feel bad – their ‘FOMO’ moment probably won’t last longer than a few seconds as they scroll down their Instagram feed to find another thing to be jealous of, whereas when you’re living away from home, there are loads of little triggers that can make you miss it, and they often catch you off-guard. There are times when the best thing to do is put the phone down and live in the moment around you. It may feel difficult, but it can work wonders for mental health, and you may discover something you love living on this side of the screen.
While I only have the time and laptop battery to list five, there are a sea of other fears and regrets swirling around my head that I could have shared with you today – in fact, I fully plan on doing another ‘Perusals…’ with a more comprehensive analysis of some of the more complex points of studying abroad. But for today, I wanted to make one thing clear: while studying abroad can evoke all of these worries, the biggest worry of all – for me, at least – has been the stress that I was the only one worrying. That I was an anomaly for not living in a picture-perfect scene. If there’s one thing I wanted to share with anyone reading this who wants to go abroad, it is absolutely to go – if you think you are prepared – and to embrace the emotions you experience as you do it. But remember that in embracing your emotions, that means facing up to some of the less exhilarating ones, and realising that you do not need to feel guilty for ‘wasting an experience’ if you face them – in fact, in facing them, you’re much more likely to appreciate the good among the bad, and then you’re doing anything but taking your experience for granted.
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