Study Abroad and Friends

Making friends is hard, even when you’re 20 and seemingly confident enough to meet new people. I mean, the last time you were thrown into a similar situation was when you were an 18-year-old who was embarking upon an exciting new journey. Just think back to your first-year orientation. Better yet, think back to the first moment you were dropped off on campus and you were completely alone, and free to do whatever you wanted. It was liberating, wasn’t it?

Now think about the moment you first realized that along with that freedom came the somewhat terrifying task of having to make new friends. It is most likely that you came to Swat not knowing anyone your year, and if you did, it was a very loose friendship, and you were charged with the job of meeting new people and picking some to make your friends.

But you were young then — so naive about the world and just beginning to dip your toe in adulthood, right? So by the time you’re a junior, and study abroad comes along, everything should be easier, right? The task of making friends should be simple, even easier, than it was freshman year.

Well, that’s a lie. It’s actually a huge, massive lie. And no one, no one, talks about it. When it comes to study abroad, people focus on this fantasy in which you’ll meet a million new people, find your significant other, get perfect grades, and come back a much improved version of yourself, but they never talk about the reality of study abroad. Because the reality is a much harsher, slightly grimmer picture.

Leaving an environment that emanates familiarity and memories can be difficult, such as leaving Swarthmore at the halfway point, but the prospect can seem a lot easier as a sophomore who has been through the worst slump of their lives. At that point, being given the chance to start over in a new country seems like a gift from above. There just seems to be such a rush, an overwhelming sensation to run away from the place that has provided some of the toughest challenges you may have ever faced. And the people who are in charge of helping you through the process of applying abroad make it seem to amazing — they tell you how envious they are, and how they wish they too could join you on the adventure. They don’t bother pointing out that the adventure will come with a multitude of difficulties, much less discussing the fact that maybe, meeting new people will be quite difficult.

Once you leave, you have to remember that you are still a junior, in the midst of a four year college career, about to take classes in a new country with a bunch of people who are also two years into their studies, and they, much like you at Swarthmore, already have their own routine. They already know where all the buildings are and who they’re going to eat lunch with every day. Most of them aren’t exactly looking for foreign additions, who are really only in their vicinity for about four months, to their squads. It happens to even the most outgoing of us — the courage to try to break into their tight circles vanishes from within us, and we scare ourselves out of meeting them.

Perhaps a simple solution would be for students and staff to be realistic when discussing abroad. They should be able to have their feet on the ground instead of their heads in the clouds, and rather than discussing abroad like a fantasy, discussing it like the reality it is, only then truly preparing a student for what is to come.

Of course, other people are not the only problem. We have to go back and think about one of the simplest, most fundamental factors of all — you’re in a new country. And no one, neither your friends or the Off Campus Study office, has prepared you enough to confront the culture shock that is eminent. No matter where you end up, whether is a seemingly progressive country that actually ends up being called ‘the nicest racist country’ (Australia) or one vastly different from the U.S., you will feel like a fish out of water. Because chances are, you didn’t plan this semester with your best friend. Chances are you picked to study in which you could be by yourself, leaving you all on your own in an all new country. This means that not only do you now have to figure out finances, the campus, and how public transport works, but also try to meet new people. And sometimes, you have to prioritize. So, you end up without time to make those friends during the crucial  first few days of international orientation because you’re up to your neck in stress about — arguably — more pressing matters.

Then, most importantly, there’s the simple reality of the situation, which is that you are likely to live alone. And not in a single on a small campus, but in a single far removed from the campus in which you take classes, which means no casual run-ins with your classmates every five minutes. Once you are removed from that tight space, becoming really close with the people you meet becomes harder. Unlike at Swarthmore, you can hide your worst moments from these new friends. You can also decide not to see them for two weeks and there is little they will do about it. The bond that you’ve been able to create with peers with whom you’ve been living with for four semesters can’t be recreated in one semester abroad, especially when distance and the environment is fully factored in.

Making friends abroad is hard. Not only are you not prepared in many ways before leaving the safety of Swarthmore, but you also must adjust to a massive culture shock. There’s also the small, important fact that it’s quite hard to make new friends halfway through your college education. So why don’t we talk about it? Why can’t we have healthy, realistic discussions about what leaving Swarthmore and entering a completely unfamiliar environment entails? We must stop making semesters abroad a fantasy that we can hardly ever hope to fulfill, but rather be realistic and talk about the difficulties students are likely to encounter. Perhaps then, the shock upon arrival would be slightly less poignant.

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