Kolison: Study abroad, behind the Instagram pictures

Kolison: Study abroad, behind the Instagram pictures

Stephen Kolison, Columnist

Finding a way to escape Case Western Reserve University is always on our minds. Classes are hard and the city can be so unforgiving that we start to beg for a vacation. This past spring semester I was lucky enough to get that vacation in the form of study abroad. My very American self was off to Manchester in the United Kingdom. With the help of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, our friends shove how much fun they are having abroad down our throats; I was ready to do the same. I was ready to get my cliché picture in a phone booth next to Big Ben. I was going to be like Lizzie McGuire and become an Italian popstar. But for every posted photo and smile, study abroad students will have twice as many moments that they don’t want you to see. For quite a few months in my time abroad, it seemed like I was having more bad times than good ones.

I was shocked to find just how lonely studying abroad can be. Loneliness abroad was definitely not advertised in the brochure. Before, you were accustomed to constantly being surrounded by familiar faces and places, but suddenly everything just seems eerily silent. And that silence is scary. You are abruptly isolated from the people and things that brought you comfort and you’re now stuck with yourself and your own thoughts. Your mind is racing and wondering what comes next. I remember getting to my bed and realizing that all of my friends and family were still asleep. There was no one to call and no one to visit down the road. I was in England, about to start the experience of a lifetime and I couldn’t share it with the people that I loved the most. For a couple of days, I walked around in silence and confusion because I didn’t know anyone or anything. I felt like a freshman all over again, except I didn’t have the luxuries that freshmen have. When we first started our time at CWRU, things were different. We were all desperate freshmen, fresh out of high school and more than willing to cling onto anyone who showed us kindness.

But making friends in your twenties is hard. You are so used to having a rhythm and back and forth with the people at home, that you’ve forgotten what it’s like to figure people out. There are already established groups, and now you have to see whether you fit into those groups. You don’t want to go it alone when you’re in a foreign country, and you might start to feel upset when the process of making friends isn’t happening fast enough.

Soon, I was mad because I wasn’t happy with anything I tried abroad. I was mad at the people posting pictures online who made this look like it was going to be easy. I was mad at myself for not being like them. Where were the happiness and the fun times that I was promised? I used study abroad to escape my problems at CWRU, but problems still found me across the pond. Whether it was drama with friends or academic troubles, I was starting to feel like I should have just stayed home. Everything seemed to be extreme; my experiences were either really good or really bad with no inbetween. It took me a while to realize this, but happiness is not a guarantee. You can hope that life will be rosy and cheery on the other side, but that is not always possible. Sometimes life sucks regardless of where you are.

Once I realized that life will not always be perfect, I found the true value in studying abroad. I had to learn not only who I was in Manchester, but I had to learn who I was back home as well.  One thing you will hear me say often is, “In life you will never get what you want. But you will always get what you need.” Was my time abroad perfect? No, it wasn’t. And I’m okay with that. Instead, what I needed was to be taken away from my comfort zone, stripped down to my bare core and then find a way to build myself back up again. For the first time in my life, I was living. I was no longer the sheltered kid from a top-notch university. By being forced to see myself in an uncomfortable light, I was given the chance to grow. Everything became real. The city became a beautiful place that I learned to appreciate because it was different. The people that I met became real and they taught me how to find happiness in the most mundane circumstances.

For anyone about to do it or anyone interested, what happens while you study abroad is unexpectable. I didn’t expect to dislike a city that seemed like a perfect dream just months before. But I also didn’t expect to go from being afraid of talking to people to befriending them and having them teach me the most valuable, beautiful lessons a person can learn.

I think it is very important for people to be honest about their experiences abroad. I want people to know that it is okay to say you didn’t enjoy an aspect of study abroad. There is no shame in having a bad time. Your experience is unique and special and deserves to be shared with the world. Despite what you see online, no study abroad experience is perfect. I never got to be like Lizzie McGuire and become a popstar and fashion icon and find true love in just the span of a week. But I got something just as cool: a chance to live a real life. When you decide to go abroad, you are not asking to get a cliché. Instead you are asking to get a true human experience. And, to me, that’s worth every dime.