The Independent Student Newspaper of Northern Kentucky University.

Photo by Gabrielle Calise

Opinion: studying abroad will turn your life upside down

Study abroad is as good as they say, but for none of the reasons you think

September 21, 2018

I was dropped into the London Heathrow Airport completely alone with a short list of items to ease me into the study abroad experience:

1. A broken laptop, 2. half the medicine I needed for the duration of my semester (after many crying sessions on the phone with the insurance company, they still wouldn’t give me all of it), 3. enough winter clothes to survive a snowstorm—much like the one that caused me to miss my initial flight.

Only I wasn’t dropped with any of these items at hand.

As I walked up to the airline help desk and had my first conversation with an English person ever, I was greeted with the knowledge that my suitcase had been left behind in Chicago, much like my desire to go through with this exchange semester.

To top it all off, I had pepper spray in my bag, which is apparently considered a firearm in the United Kingdom.

I didn’t know what to do but to start blubbering like a baby.

Traveling mishaps will happen; be prepared for them

Much like my sequential mishaps at the start of the trip, I ran into these same horrible coincidences throughout my semester. One of the absolute worst times of the trip (and maybe my life?) happened when I was supposed to be galavanting through Italy on spring break.

Nicole Browning
Completely alone in Italy, things went awry after my stop in Rome

I had a sinking feeling when I went to sleep in Rome on my last night. The dull, achy scratching at the back of my throat came to fruition the next morning when I was set to travel alone by train to Naples.

I arrived at the hostel in Naples and wound up staying in bed, feeling sicker and sicker. Throat infection. Anyone who could help me was far back at my home base in London.

I decided to rough it and went out to experience Naples anyway. That Saturday night, a friend I made from the hostel, E’lan, and I went out searching for the best pizza in Naples (and we came damn near finding it). On the walk back, I couldn’t fit my bulky iPhone 6 into my purse while my passport was in it so I put it in my breast pocket.

“We can take a shortcut,” E’lan had said. She knew that way better.

I walked down a cobblestone side street with her and squeezed myself between a parked car and one that was slowly making its way down the street. There were so many people trying to fit through that small area.

And just like that, I felt my phone gone. On the back of my phone was a pocket with a very faded NKU emblem. Inside were both of my debit cards.

The hard part came in the following days when I had to make do with no access to money, maps, and no way to tell time. Without the friends I made at the hostel, I probably wouldn’t have made it back to London.

Nicole Browning
One of the first pictures I took after I stepped out of London King’s Cross station

I had to ignore the fever I was brewing and the stabbing pain in my throat to get through a day of traveling, searching for clocks in the airport to know the time of day. To put it lightly, it all really, really sucked.

Life problems never go away, even while abroad

When you go on a two week vacation, all the events are truncated; from the time you wake up until the time you go to sleep at night, everything is planned out for you and you don’t have time to really address any of the problems you’re facing in your life. You just go.

On a long term study abroad trip (depending on your course load), you have nothing but time and opportunity—especially if you go to a place knowing no one else. You start off with a blank slate and build from the ground up. Who do I want to be in this new place? What group of friends would I fit into?

Facing drastic life changes, culture shock and gaining so much independence in a short amount of time can be daunting. All the free time gives you the choice to do with it what you will. This could be going out and exploring constantly, but it could also give you the space to hide away.

Look for the moments you will tell as stories one day

No matter how hard or life altering it is, I could never say that study abroad isn’t worth it. I have so many memories to look back on fondly.

When I think about being gone for six months of my life, I think a lot about St. Peter’s Basilica and how I went into the prayer room and felt like crying because it was the most beautiful room I had ever seen.

I think about my friend Isa irrationally screaming “I’m going to lose my toe!” because of an infection, and how all my friends and I probably laughed more than helped.

And I think about how chaotic Paris was and how I almost got hit by a bus, but it was okay because now I have a story to tell and a precious memory with Marren, who shouted, “NICOLE!” when she saw the bus barreling toward me.

Nicole Browning
The view OF the Eiffel Tower in Paris was both cheaper–and prettier–than from it

Sometimes life feels like getting hit by a bus, and all you can do is just laugh and be grateful for what you have.

Appreciate everything and take chances; your life will never be like this again

Don’t allow yourself to look at life like a routine when you start to fall into a schedule while you’re abroad. It will happen.

But try to make the most of the time you have and do new and exciting things, because the chances are that you will never again have so much freedom and opportunity as you do on a semester abroad. This is your time.

There are many times I look back and wish I had just pushed myself a little harder to do more than I was. Not to say I didn’t appreciate being given an opportunity to let loose. I did.

It was more like, as someone living in a place where virtually no one knew me and I was only going to stay for a short time, why wouldn’t I take every chance I got to do something new? Why wouldn’t I try to meet as many people as I could? Why wouldn’t I just live?

And that’s exactly why study abroad in some ways is just like real life, but abroad. You feel the same apprehension you feel in your day to day life. You feel the same comfort when you find a solid group of friends and a daily routine, which can make you less inclined to branch outside those comforts.

You have the same struggles and worries, just in a different location.

So every time you think about something cool you could be doing while studying abroad, don’t think; just do it.

You will have to be independent, and it sucks

If there is any one thing I can say about studying abroad, it’s like a crash course in maturity. It literally FORCES you to change, because you’re the only one looking out for yourself when you go to a foreign country knowing virtually no one.

Illustration by Nicole Browning
A before and after transformation: four friends who’d known each other three days on the left…and on the right, four friends who had been through four months of growing, experiencing and fun together.

You face the surface level tasks involved in maturing; you have to take care of your food, you have to manage your money (and if you’re like me, you’ll suck at it), you have to take care of your health.

You also face the deeper, more personal side to maturing. You won’t get along with everyone. You’ll struggle some days and think a lot about life as a whole. You’ll make mistakes. Own them.

Above all, study abroad is a small amount of time in which you learn big things.

You get to taste the sweet and sour sides of life and see what you enjoy and find out what you don’t. It’s grueling and it’s a struggle. But if you find some amazing people and explore new places, you’ll find you have beautiful memories. It’s worth it.


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