Studying abroad is hard, but worth it
Here We Go Again: Letters From Exile
So far this semester, all my columns have related to me being in Ireland but concentrated on something more relevant to the bulk of Notre Dame students. In this final column, however, I want to write entirely about the abroad experience itself.
This is still pretty relevant — Notre Dame sends 900 kids per year abroad, which means that almost half the school goes at some point. This column is primarily for the 900 people going next year and secondarily for the 2000 freshmen considering applying.
Going abroad is actually not the best thing I've ever done and it hasn't been the best semester of my life. The first month I was here, I seriously questioned my sanity for applying. I am very prone to homesickness, and I was intensely homesick for both Notre Dame and home for the first month. I was counting the days, I was thinking (only briefly) of giving the whole thing up and going home, and I was homesick and lonely for quite a while.
Going abroad is a lot like being a freshman again — you don't know what's going on and you want to go home. What's worse, everyone else seems to be having the time of their lives. But, like freshman year, it only seems like everyone else is perfectly fine. Almost everyone is scared and lonely sometimes during freshman year, and almost everyone is lonely and homesick sometimes while they are abroad.
Being abroad is frustrating. If you don't know the language, there will be days when you don't understand anything anyone says. You may know the language and still have days where you can't figure out what is going on. Little things like no paper towels in bathrooms will drive you nuts. The accent will get on your nerves. You'll wonder if it's always cold/hot in this country. You'll get really, really lost. Some nights all you'll want to do is curl up and cry for your mommy.
But it is honestly worth it. You'll learn so incredibly much abroad, and at least 98 percent of it will be outside the classroom. You'll learn to cook, to make international phone calls and travel plans and to BS your way through an assignment in a foreign country. You will (eventually) learn the bus system, the train system and the educational system. You'll learn about budgeting and independence. You'll learn about yourself, who you are, how you deal with new things and where you are comfortable.
The little and big frustrations of everyday life will pale after awhile and be forgotten, but what you learn about yourself won't be. It's like freshman year — an opportunity to stretch and redefine yourself. Except this time, you've done it before, so it's significantly less scary. You won't actually save seals or small starving children in East Asia, but it is an incredible experience. It's not always fun, but that's when you learn the most. If it doesn't hurt a little, you aren't growing.
The hardest part is being away from Notre Dame. To you, it feels like life is on hold while you go off adventuring, but it's not. When your best friend starts dating someone you've never met, or your friends go out and send pictures that you aren't in, or when a loved one is hurting and you can't give them a hug, it's really hard. Going abroad is a great opportunity, but it costs you a semester at Notre Dame. When you only have three or four left, that's a big price. Nevertheless, it's completely worth it.
I'm not trying to scare people. Some people may never feel most of this, may never miss Notre Dame or may never be unhappy. But a lot of people will. No one told me before I went to Notre Dame or Ireland that it wasn't going to be all peaches and cream, and I want to let people know that's it's not.
The hardest thing for me was worrying that I wouldn't enjoy it, that I'd be the one person who hated being abroad. In those early days when I was really unhappy, I was pretty well convinced that I was that person. But it got better and I haven't hated it here, and trust me, if anyone was going to, it would have been me.
I'm saying all this to reassure everyone going abroad that, even though it won't always be easy, it will be worth it. I think the best way to go into anything is with a realistic sense of what it will be like. It's probably going to be hard at first. So cut this out, bring it with you and read it those first few weeks when it's difficult. Then, when it all gets good (and it will), throw it out and have a brilliant time.
Marlayna Soenneker is a junior psychology major studying in Dublin this semester. She would like to thank all the people in Dublin who have made her abroad experience grand, especially Annie, Kati, Jenn, Erin and Anne. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, and her column will be returning to its regularly scheduled country next semester.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Thursday, April 25, 2002