“How did I ever get here?” That was the first thought going through my mind.
I arrived in Byron Bay, NSW Australia, alone, because I thought that taking the cheaper flight would save me time and money. I was wrong. First lesson learned traveling alone.
Now, listen. Everyone will tell you that studying abroad was the best thing that ever happened to them. You will see the pictures of everyone in the ruins of the Acropolis in Athens, or the cathedrals of Prague, or at the peak of Machu Picchu in Peru. Yet, nobody ever tells you about that first feeling when you touch down in that foreign country and think, “What’s going to happen to me?”
I can tell you first and foremost: nothing you read online or hear from friends will prepare you for that moment. Even this editorial you’re reading. This, of course, is the basics of human experience – everyone experiences life differently.
Luckily, you’re not alone. Well, unless you want to be left alone. There was one guy from my program who refused to hang out with ISA Newcastle group and opted to explore Australia alone – and that’s completely fine! Still love that guy.
Let’s backtrack again.
Deciding to study abroad is hard. It’s perhaps one of the biggest decisions you can make in your late-teens/early 20’s. I mean – you’re deciding to leave behind your friends and family. Potential job opportunities. Life with that club/frat/sorority/college improv team. That intense romantic relationship you somehow got into before going off to Australia (true story).
And that’s scary! But it’s perfectly okay to feel that way. You’re about to lose out on a bunch of opportunities at home. I’m not really selling this that well, am I?
But in return, you’re gaining so many more new opportunities.
I didn’t have a whole ton of money to travel around in Australia and I kinda got jealous of everyone that did. I was watching everyone go see the Great Barrier Reef before it passes away from coral bleaching. I saw pictures of people kayaking in Milford Sound in New Zealand. One person I know got to take pictures of herself with quokkas in Western Australia. Google what a quokka is and you can see why I was jealous.
However, I made sure to stay on campus and live with some of the greatest Australians I’ve ever met. I got to go to Sydney, Port Macquarie, and the Blue Mountains on my own time from those relationships I made. I lived and breathed life in Newcastle like a local. Better than any picture I have of myself riding camels on Lighthouse Beach or holding a koala in Queensland, I made lifelong friendships with people I never expected to ever meet in my lifetime. The best memories I have were not of me in scenic places – it was from the breaking of bread between two different cultures and finding new ways to love and relate to the world around us.
I can try to teach you Aussie slang. I can try to tell you all the best places to go in Sydney. I can kinda tell you about all the crazy, weird stories of me hanging out with Australians. But nothing I can tell you will prepare yourself for the internal change you will feel when you live in a foreign country for 4-5 months.
All I can say is this: be as open as possible to the customs and ways of life of the country you’re living in. It’s easy to travel from city to city looking at pretty buildings and eating pasta, but it’s even harder to accept certain ways of life you’re not used to and make it your own. So many Americans travel abroad and are stubborn about assimilating into the new culture they’re experiencing! Isn’t that the point of this whole thing?
In fact, I think even MORE valuable than the friendships you make along the way, is the new perspective you gain. The improved capacity to love and accept entirely different people. The ability to try new things. The desire to journey into the unknown.
That is the beauty of studying abroad.
So back to that moment when I was in Byron Bay alone thinking, “How did I ever get here?”
I felt joy, laughter, fear, and loneliness all in one. I was thinking about how lucky I was to be in a completely new place by myself. I was thinking about how uncertain the future was ahead of me. I was thinking about the stress AND relief of being far, far away from my problems at home, knowing I would have to go back and figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I was thinking about the potential new relationships that are going to come my way.
Funny enough, I had the same exact moment in a completely different context five months later. I was in Sydney with a massive group of Australians who had lived with me that semester. Some of whom I consider close, dear friends to this day.
I looked up into the sky from the heart of the city, and I saw those (now) familiar stars in the Southern Hemisphere. I just thought: “How did I ever get here?”
And I just started laughing. Because I was thousands of miles away from home. With a group of Australians. In one of the biggest cities in the world. That place with the one opera house.
But, there was also melancholy. Knowing I had to leave my friends in a few weeks. Knowing I had to go back home and figure out my life. Knowing that this is all temporary.
So, what can you even possibly do to prepare yourself for studying abroad? At this point, you’re reading this and thinking, “Well this sounds like torture! Why would I leave everything good at home, just to make new friends, live somewhere beautiful, and then leave it again? What kind of sick person are you, Chuck?”
Well, all you can really do is enjoy it. Isn’t that enough?