LEXI COTCAMP FOR THE HOYA

I look up at the million shards of light that dance before me and breathe deeply, taking in the speechless grandeur of the Eiffel Tower. Pausing, I think to myself: “This is it! This is what I will tell people about study abroad.”

And then abruptly, I stop. It’s true that this is dream-worthy – the iconic image of Paris. But it doesn’t tell the whole story about studying abroad. As I enter my fourth month in France, I reflect on this question often: What will I tell people when they ask about my experience?

I think about this because I remember asking the very same question about study abroad myself. As a Hoya, a student and a dreamer, I have valued my time abroad to its fullest. However, I know that much of the remaining value exists in being able to translate this experience to life on the Hilltop – to both my life and that of others.

I had dreamed of study abroad since coming to Georgetown. I decided early on that languages are bonkers cool, traveling is all sorts of amazing and exploring a new culture is downright jazzy. So as junior year approached, I carefully filled out the applications and tackled the painstakingly atrocious visa process. I chose to study in Nantes, France (the country’s sixth largest city).

Fast forward to one month later and my life could easily be seen by most people as nothing short of a French fairytale.

I’ve met my host family and learned that my host dad is a semi-famous French chef.  I’ve made some spectacular friends, many of who are among the 40 other American students that I’m spending the semester with. Dublin, Paris, Munich, Bologna, Rome, Florence and the French Champagne region dot my travel itinerary. I’ve immersed myself in the French language and started rapidly climbing the learning curve. The world’s best pain au chocolat is a daily staple. And I’ve discreetly stepped into life as a femme française, forming a newfound identity as one who is here to stay.

This story illustrates the highlights of my time abroad, which has been undoubtedly magnifique. It reads like a flawless fairytale, a dream and a half, a casual frivolity. It depicts a tale without bad days or trips on the struggle bus. And it evokes an easy-breezy-beautiful-Covergirl sort of mentality.

However, I want to tell you something immensely important. Something I am quite frankly scared to share. I want to tell you what I wish I had known – perhaps what you may not want to hear. I want to tell you what nobody told me about study abroad: It is not just about the highlights. It is not always “easy.”

 I don’t mean just physically, emotionally, socially, financially or mentally. When I first remarked on these tiny ebbs of unease, people were quick to respond that that was impossible, as if being abroad automatically means you can’t feel anything but overwhelming joy and happiness 24/7.

But bad days and personal struggles exist abroad just like anywhere else. Perhaps they exist even more strikingly, being that one stands beyond their comfort zone.

There may be days when you struggle with always feeling like the outsider. When you are now the minority rather than the majority. When you feel like classes are either an unbelievable “joke” or a believable impossibility. When the loss of your usual community of intellectual engagement leaves you without any raison d’être as a student.

Maybe you’ll feel that nobody “gets you.” You may be confronted with the loss of all things familiar, including familiarity itself. In venturing to the likes of Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, you might be confronted by the fear of missing out (FOMO). For some, maybe the lessons in solitude will manifest as lessons in loneliness. For others, there is the trying emotional investment of having a loved one elsewhere – of figuring out how to live feeling like the other half of you is still at home. For you, perhaps being understood completely is the simplest wish and the most unattainable desire. 

In talking with others abroad this semester, every person remarked that they thought study abroad was “supposed to be easy.” Yet, while most described the overall experience as positive, nobody described the semester as easy. And in fact, not a single person had been warned of these trying lowlights of study abroad beforehand.

Yes, I will tell you that study abroad is magnifique and for some, life-changing. You can pursue the extraordinary and find a life totally unlike the one you’ve lived. Yes, I will tell you that I believe it is 100 percent worth it and that you’ll never forget it.

But, I will also tell you that study abroad is not just plain easy.

For most, it isn’t a four month vacation. I say this not to be negative or be discouraging. I say this because it’s what nobody told me. But I wish I had known it so as to avoid feeling caught off guard or as if these sentiments were unique to me.

For me, study abroad has been nothing like I expected but far beyond anything I ever could have dreamed. Plans rarely go directly according to plan, hair gets tangled and life gets messy on the daily.

But you learn to make it your own. Through it all, life abroad paints the world in colors you’ve scarcely imagined. And the complete picture is one of highlights, lowlights and everything in between. It’s a whole lot of organized chaos and requires a whole lot of faith in yourself. It’s not perfect but it’s always exactly as it should be.

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