The mechanical half-smile I had determinedly cemented to my face finally cracked and faltered. Slowing to a walk, I tried for what felt like the thousandth time to orient myself among the maddeningly similar, taunting concrete towers. The unfamiliar panic that welled up inside me melted my last shred of resolve, and I admitted something that I hadn’t conceded since seventh-grade chorus class: “I can’t do this.”

It was my third week abroad; I was wearing my standard jogging outfit of Nikes and a ratty Welcome Back Jack T-shirt, standing on a street corner on the outskirts of Seville, Spain, in a cold drizzle. I was hopelessly lost. I stood there, feeling stupid but trying not to cry, thinking only about how I could possibly get home and if I would make it in time to Skype with my parents. It wasn’t until later that I realized that that episode was a perfect, unfortunate metaphor for my entire study-abroad experience.

In general, Georgetown students have no shortage of internal drive, ambition and determination, and it was with this can-do attitude that I approached my semester abroad. Can I pick up the accent and communicate fluently? Absolutely. Will I make friends? Surely. Can I go out four nights a week? You bet. Can I tour that cathedral? Why not? Can I go for a run around the city without getting lost? Sure. And perhaps most important: Will I have the same success in my Spanish university classes that I’ve had at Georgetown? Of course I will, I told myself.

For the first month I struggled to answer all of these questions with resounding affirmatives, but as many overextended Georgetown students have learned after passing out in a Lauinger Library cubicle one too many times, you simply can’t do it all.

In my eagerness to achieve the ideal study-abroad experience, I forgot to live my own study-abroad experience. I may have filled my binders with pages of notes and my memory card with photos, but I was running on empty.

While my Spanish improved to the point where I could communicate effectively — if not correctly — I realized that I still needed to recalibrate my expectations for the rest of my experience in a big way. For me, this meant not letting the fear of improperly using the subjunctive stop me from striking up a conversation at the bus stop. It meant letting myself miss a Thursday night at the club if I was tired and needed to sleep. It meant spending a quiet afternoon with a friend by the river instead of tearing around the city seeing every sight there is to see. But most of all, it meant forgetting the years of conditioning that taught me that my success and my happiness are tied to my grades.

I still take notes, study, go to class and prepare for exams, but I no longer allow my academic success to be the driving force behind my decisions. Between an impromptu trip to the beach or an extra three hours preparing for a midterm, I’m picking the beach every time. Do I want to spend an afternoon studying in the library or getting drinks with friends? Cerveza, por favor! There will always be chances to retake a class, but the opportunity to make real connections with other people in these extraordinary places is a rare thing and not something to be dismissed lightly.

When I freed my mentality from the grip of the academics-first ideology, a curious thing happened. I found that I began to enjoy my classes more, looked forward to lectures and participated in discussions. I regained the desire to learn for the sake of learning, not to boost a GPA, and it was refreshing.

At least in Europe, Georgetown study abroad programs are pass/fail, meaning that grades don’t count toward your GPA, giving students not only room to adjust to the language and the culture, but the opportunity to adjust their own expectations and prioritize experiences over tiny numbers on a transcript. I only wish that I had adjusted my own expectations sooner.

I have now been living in Seville for almost three months and the other day, during an evening walk, I found myself standing on the street corner on the outskirts of Seville where I was lost all those weeks ago. Remembering that day and those feeling of helplessness was like replaying a scene from a movie. I felt like I was watching a different person. And I am a different person. I’m no longer lost.

Admitting to myself that it was unrealistic to think that I could do everything and that it was OK to let my academic ambitions ride in the backseat for one semester was the first step toward discovering that “studying abroad” is about so much more than studying. It’s about living.

Laura Wagner is a junior in the College. She is currently studying abroad in Seville, Spain.

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