Live, Travel, Adventure…and Don’t Be Sorry.

API alumni came together to feature issues related to mental health awareness and study abroad.  Join us this week as we look at the many aspects of healthy adventure in a foreign culture.

Julie Kerouac image

We’ve all experienced it before: the inevitable interaction that occurs between the Returned Study Abroad Student and the Well-Intentioned Friend or family member.

“Oh my gosh, HI! You’re back! How was your trip?”

And we all know the standard response they are looking for.

“It was AH-mazing! Totally life changing! I already want to go back!”

And then both parties go on their way, as if nothing had ever changed, and no one had ever left, and four months of incredible, agonizing, life-altering self-discovery was nothing more than a blink of an eye. And life goes on.

It’s no secret that the majority of study abroad returnees you talk to will be disappointed with this standard superficial and limited conversation. How could you ever really express something so complex and transformative in a mere few sentences?

However, there is another over-looked and usually unanticipated reason returning travelers are unsatisfied with this basic interaction. For me, answering the question “How was it?”  felt more like a test to see how well my answer fit the “everything was awesome” stereotype, than genuine curiosity about my unique experience. It felt like people were asking me just because it was rude not to, or because the question had an expected answer. It was easier to say “Everything was great!” than to explain that it was actually really hard sometimes.

I felt like the odd one out among my peers.

Like a Spiderman among Batmen.

Julie Batman Image 1

(Image retrieved from: home.5punk.co.uk)

I kept thinking What’s wrong with me?

I wondered what error I could have made, why it was that I didn’t desperately want to go back, and if I had completely blown this “Once-In-A-Lifetime” opportunity.

It goes without saying that I was experiencing huge amounts of guilt, regret, and self-loathing.

How could I have let this happen?

Fortunately, after many months of ceaseless self-reflection, conversations with other alumni and friends, a study abroad re-entry course, and long talks with my own personal social worker (aka my mom), it occurred to me that maybe I wasn’t a gigantic failure after all.

Sure, maybe I wasn’t having the exact same feelings towards my experience that everyone else seemed to be having, butt I’m human. My experiences are unique to me, and that’s OK. A huge part of being human is accepting your uniqueness and imperfections, and knowing that you most definitely are not going to be perfect.

My uncommon reaction to my study abroad experience has taught me that uniqueness is growth. Difference is revolutionary. Had I not felt like I was an Other in this situation, or that my emotional reaction to my trip was unique, I would never have stopped to reflect on why I felt like I did. If I hadn’t struggled, I would not have learned, and I would not have grown. I thought I failed when I went abroad to “find myself” and came back feeling more lost and frustrated than ever. But I did find myself.

I found out that I am really hard on myself, and that I need to be more understanding and appreciative of the person I am. I found out that I have an incredibly solid relationship with my family, and that I need to be okay with leaning on them for support. I found out that while I am strong and independent enough to do things on my own, that I do much better – and have more fun – when I allow others to come along for the ride, too. There is no rulebook that exists to tell you what emotions you should be having when. But that’s what makes life fun. Be a Spider-Man in a room of Batman’s, because 1.) Spider-Man is FLIPPING AWESOME and you can shoot WEB out of your WRISTS. And 2.) Who wants to be more darkness in a room of black cloaks when you can stand out in your Big Bold Spidey-Suit?

Julie Batman Image 2

Finally, I learned that Once In A Lifetime does not exist. Once In A Lifetime is a phrase we use to scare ourselves into unreasonable expectations and the pressure to not screw something up. I learned the hard way that Once In A Lifetime only exists if you let it. I spent a lot of my time abroad mad at myself for having the “wrong” feelings and thinking that I was blowing this Once In A Lifetime opportunity, when really, it was just the First In My Lifetime of many opportunities. If I want to go abroad again, and put into practice all of these amazing things I learned about myself, my culture, and the world during my first extraordinary experience, then I can make that happen. I did it once, why couldn’t I do it again?

The moral of the story is this: the only person who can truly make you feel anything about your experience is yourself. You can waste a lot of time sitting around full of regret like I did, dwelling on the “shoulda-coulda-woulda’s”, and telling yourself you’re a failure, or you can LIVE YOUR LIFE. Instead, take pride in the fact that that you had the guts to take risks in a way that many people never will. Find joy that you came out on the other side knowing yourself better. Find peace now that the most difficult part is over: all you have to do is simply look back and smile at all you’ve accomplished. Give yourself enough time to take a step back and see the Big Picture, and I promise you, you won’t be sorry.

Julie Hyperbole Image 1

(Image retrieved from: hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com)

Julie Pleshe is an API Global Leader for the 2015-2016 academic year.  Interested in sharing your story through the API Global Leadership Academy? Apply today!

 

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