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When I started applying to study abroad in October last year, many of my friends looked at me like I was mad. It was as if I was about to face my death in battle when they said ‘you’re so brave!’ with wide eyes. Some of them told me that they couldn’t have done it themselves because they’d miss their families and friends too much, and couldn’t stop asking, ‘won’t you get homesick?’
It wasn’t until I attended a pre-departure information session at my home university that I started to really think about how much I’d miss home. The Student Counselling Centre at Leeds created a graph that predicted how study abroad participants would feel at various points in the semester, including illusively named ‘disintegration’ phases. What worried me the most was that the lines on the graph were so steep, making me feel as if I was going to be an emotional pendulum swinging from one side of culture shock to the other. I like to think that if I’d had the bravery to apply for study abroad in the first place I might actually be a little more in control of my emotions when I get there, rather than a hopeless pinball getting bashed and bruised by my surroundings. I left the lecture feeling pretty intimidated, but largely skeptical that someone who had never met me had tried to predict how I would feel six months down the line.
Today I look back on the graph in light of how I experienced culture shock, and I still don’t resonate with its dramatic suggestions. First of all, it doesn’t do studying abroad any justice by referring to a brief post-arrival period as a ‘honeymoon stage’. With America on my doorstep, the buzz I experienced after I arrived lasted far longer than just a ‘honeymoon’. Even months into my time here there have been surreal moments when I’ve stepped outside my dorm, taken a deep breath, relished in the beautiful view around me and felt blessed all over again for having such an incredible opportunity. The prevalence of Southern hospitality in South Carolina has also meant that a friendly face and pleasant conversation is always nearby, unlike what can sometimes feel like an inhospitable winter grizzle in Leeds city center during a typical semester at home.
My on-arrival orientation didn’t exactly go as expected either. Lasting 7 hours, two whole hours of it had me convinced that during some point in the year I would probably get arrested. We were taken over detail after detail of drinking laws, during which I was particularly shocked to hear I could even be fined $250 if I was stone-cold sober but found in the presence of a drunkard. It was the second time I’d left a study abroad ‘orientation’ feeling more like an outsider than ever.
As for my apparent ‘disintegration’, halfway through the semester I wasn’t bundled up in my room looking through nostalgic photos and pulling my hair out for want of a decent cup of tea. I was on a weekend away in the beautiful city of Charleston, sightseeing and sunbathing with a group of 15 internationals. Not once have I felt ‘disintegrated’ and like I wasn’t part of the brilliant institution that’s taken me under its wing.
But my biggest issue with the graph is that the ‘independence stage’ is placed right before the coming home stage. The day I waved goodbye to my family and my boyfriend in August was one of the hardest days of my life, and it was from that day forward that the independence stage had already begun. What the graph doesn’t say is that culture shock, homesickness and feelings of independence collide and happen all the time. They never stop.
I appreciate that the Counselling Centre was trying to reassure us with the prospect of predictability, but I’ve since learned that the greatest challenge of studying abroad is being open to the possibility of the unpredictable. I spent months watching youtube videos of American football games and tourist information adverts in a futile attempt to prepare myself for what I was about to encounter. Little did I know that USC is actually nowhere near the beach and there isn’t a crazy ‘I’m Shmacked’ party happening every weekend. I departed for South Carolina having written a blog called ‘expect the unexpected’, but I didn’t realise at the time how far I was from learning the true meaning behind these words.
How you feel when you study abroad will depend on who you are, where you go and the people you meet. Every study abroad experience is different, and getting used to its constant ups and downs is all part of the fun. The whole point of studying abroad is that it’s an unpredictable experience that will take you out of your comfort zone- one that can’t be plotted on a graph.