The power of low expectations

When I arrived in Stockholm a month ago for study abroad I suddenly found myself with a lot more free time than I was used to. Even though I am still in four classes I didn’t have my extra-curricular activities and wasn’t constantly surrounded by the “If you aren’t studying, what are you doing?” attitude that plagues Swarthmore’s campus. It was possible for me to do well in my classes and not spend all of my time studying. I was confused, everyone had told me that study abroad is the chance of a lifetime. When else are you going to have the opportunity to the opportunity to spend four months living abroad? I began to feel like every second of my day had to be filled with life-changing experiences.

I imagine this feeling of “Why am I not having the time of my life?” is what many people feel when they first go off to college. In a way, starting college is similar to study abroad: college is often touted as the best four years of your life, so when people get to college and realize that it isn’t all fun they probably have similar issues.

But I arrived at Swarthmore with quite low expectations. Before I left for college one of my older cousins told me “everyone tells you college is the best four years of your life, but no one tells you it takes time to get to that point.” She was referencing the fact that it takes time to settle into college and find a routine that works for you; for whatever reason, this really stuck with me.

When I arrived on campus, I was prepared for low points. I knew that I would spend most of my time studying. and it would take time to be able to find the things on campus that really made me happy. It was probably these low expectations that helped make my first semester at Swarthmore bearable.

Unfortunately, I did not have the same expectations going into study abroad. I was determined that this was going to be my chance to have fun and be adventurous. I first realized this wasn’t true when I woke up on my first free Saturday morning after orientation and realized I had no plans for the daytime. I started panicking that I was wasting a whole day. What was I supposed to do with all this time? At Swarthmore I would sleep in until 11 a.m., eat Sharples brunch, and study before Saturday night, but all of those activities seemed like an utter waste of time. After all, I am only here for four months. I can’t spend all my time ~studying~.

After some forced self-reflection (i.e., talking to my mother) I realized that this mindset was not sustainable. My mother reminded me that I am here for four months, and if I am going to survive this experience, I need to pace myself. I need to sleep, relax, study, and do things that I enjoy at home or at school as well as abroad. I need to find a balance between taking advantage of opportunities here that I don’t have back home and making sure I am taking care of myself.

For the past two weeks or so, I have been reminding myself of this fact every time I worry that I am not doing enough. Yes, I am abroad and yes, this is a fantastic experience. But this isn’t an extended vacation. I am here to live and learn about another culture. It is important to realize that even the everyday things here are an opportunity for me to learn and immerse myself in the culture. Taking my headphones out while on my morning commute and listening to mumblings in Swedish or sitting in a coffee shop observing those around me may not be the kind of exciting study abroad stories I thought I was going to get, but that does not mean they are not valuable. Taking the time to slow down and experience all the new things around me will help me get the study abroad experience I want.

I know that everyone goes into study abroad with different goals, but I want to know what it is like to live in another country for four months. I want to know what my life would look like if I lived here. And I don’t need to have every minute of every day filled with life-changing events for me to achieve that.

For those of you who are worried about whether or not you are getting enough out of study abroad or even college in general, it is important to take a step back and think about what your goals are and what you need to do to reach them. Everyone’s goals will be a little bit different and therefore everyone’s experience should be different. You don’t need to try to mold your experience to match someone else’s or to look like what you think society says it should look like.

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