Study Abroad: The Hardest Four Months of My Life


“How was abroad? It looked amazing from your Instagram!” was the most frequent greeting I received on returning to campus in January after spending my fall semester abroad in Santiago, Chile. I knew that the “how was abroad” question was inescapable, and even though I had spent the last few weeks of December considering how I would answer this, by the time I arrived at Middlebury I still didn’t quite have an answer. It turns out I didn’t need to: people were answering their own questions for me, with the near-universal assumption that everyone has a great time abroad.

The dominant narrative about study abroad is that it’s the best time of a young person’s life: a whirlwind of weekend trips, delicious food, language acquisition, new international friends, and “finding yourself.” People come back “enlightened” and more “cultured” (I could write a whole different article about the problematic nature of [white] American students moving to a new country for four months and claiming the culture as their own and truly believing they are “one of them” now). This is the most popular abroad story sold to underclassmen, one which is reinforced by the Middlebury study abroad office, social media, returning students and society at large. It’s the story I consumed and wholeheartedly believed as I was getting ready to go abroad. It might be the story I’m guilty of perpetuating through my social media use. 

My true abroad experience, however, was messier than the simple picture our culture paints of studying abroad. The first two months were great — every day felt like an adventure and I discovered independence as I figured out the metro system, wandered museums by myself, and spent time with friends at bars until the early hours of the morning. Around the halfway point of the semester, however, I started to confront the reality that I wasn’t actually happy with my life in Chile. I started to acknowledge that I really missed my friends and life at Middlebury and that I was pretty lonely in Santiago. I realized the “adventure” I used to call the metro actually gave me pretty bad anxiety every time I got on it, and that walking through crowds of people on the street wasn’t exciting but rather overwhelming for me. I suddenly became aware of the extreme discomfort I experienced every time I stepped outside of my house, uncomfortable in my own skin that was so often catcalled and stared at everywhere I went. I realized that I didn’t feel like I had made a “home” in Chile at all, and that feeling like a tourist for months, detached from your “real life” without truly making a new one, is not at all exhilarating, but actually very draining.

After confronting these feelings, the last two months of my semester abroad were rather dull, and I threw myself into end-of-semester projects to distract myself from my distress. I lost my appetite and I cried a lot — to the point where my mom once seriously asked me if I wanted to come home early. If I’m being honest with myself and with you, which is the whole reason I’m writing this, I’m still trying to get back to feeling like myself again after how much abroad took out of me.

It is such a demanding experience, and I feel deceived by the study abroad story — no one told me to brace myself for anything negative. Every upperclassman I talked to when I was a sophomore had nothing but positive things to say about his or her abroad experience, and I was expecting to feel the same way. Last May, when I confided in a senior friend who had done a semester abroad that I was extremely nervous about leaving Middlebury for a semester, he reassured me the experience would be fine and that I’d regret not going. It wasn’t until a few months ago, while I was still abroad, that he admitted to me over FaceTime that “I don’t think anyone actually has a good time abroad.” In the moment I felt like I had been lied to by everyone who had been abroad before me. Now I can recognize that what he said to me in May wasn’t exactly a lie, but I think that hearing about the more complete reality of abroad before I left would have prepared me to expect certain challenges and feelings that I hadn’t experienced before. 

This isn’t to say everyone who studies abroad has a bad time or that it’s not a worthwhile experience, but it is so emotionally demanding, and I would be surprised to hear anyone say otherwise. I’ve found that once I start to answer the “how was abroad” question hesitantly, with an answer like, “Well, it was kind of tough,” people jump in and say, “Yeah, actually it was for me too!” It’s as if there’s some sort of stigma around sharing negative study abroad experiences that people can’t break until someone else does first, which is probably a symptom of our campus culture regarding showing weakness or failure.

I’m not trying to scare underclassmen into not going abroad, but I am asking for more honesty on a campus that normalizes studying abroad to an extreme. I’m all for cross-cultural exploration, traveling and language acquisition, but let’s not lie to each other about how tough it can be to leave behind your entire life for a semester or a year and move to a new country at 20 years old. A few weeks ago, one of my friends who stayed on campus for junior year was asked why he didn’t go abroad and his answer was so simple: “I’m really happy at Midd and I finally feel settled in, so I wasn’t ready to give that up.” Studying abroad is not a bad decision, but it is a big one that deserves a lot of consideration and preparation. It’s a complex, challenging experience that shouldn’t just be sold or described as just a crazy fun semester. 

And like any experience in life, it’s sure to have its ups and downs. I don’t regret going abroad — even with all its shortcomings, I’d definitely do it again. A lot of good came from the experience, and I did have some pretty great moments. But let’s not just let our social media accounts or the dominant cultural narrative tell our abroad stories. Let’s tell them authentically and holistically instead of just romanticizing the experience for future students.

Don’t just take it from my Instagram. Ask me “how was abroad,” but be ready to hear it all — the good, the bad, and everything between.