“It’s almost like being a freshman again.”
We’re back. You’ve spotted us at Usdan. You’ve done a double take on your way to class. You’ve drunkenly accosted us at a party and asked that question that has no easy answer:
“HOW WAS YOUR SEMESTER ABROAD?”
As you’ve quickly found out, some us of haven’t quite found the words to fit an entire semester into a sentence. How could we? Going abroad is unreplicable. It’s complicated. It’s contradictory. Sometimes it actually feels like a Taylor Swift song: after living in Europe for four months, I can report that I have actually felt happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time.
After I provide some kind of satisfactory answer to describe my semester abroad, I’ve often found that people ask a second question:
“HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE BACK AT WES?”
Sometimes this is a harder query than the first. Most of us have some kind of response prepared to illustrate our experience or a go-to anecdote about our time abroad. But after making our home on another continent it’s difficult to pinpoint how it feels to be back in America, and more specifically back at the institution that launched us into the world in the first place. To get a sense of how others are feeling about the re-orientation process, I interviewed some other globe-trotting Weskids. Below are our best attempts to describe coming home.
After living in a different culture for four months, some of us had to re-adjust to practices, standards, and norms that once were intuitive. Eriq Robinson ’15, who spent the fall in Beijing, China, reported that he was surprised by the body language he observed at home in Texas. “The thing that bugged me the most was the way that people were standing … I was at a restaurant and I was watching a man talk to a woman. He was leaning against this table and even though he was standing, it seemed that he was trying to stretch his legs as far away from him as possible. The whole thing seemed ridiculous and made me a little uncomfortable.” Sam Furnival ’15, who went on the Brown in India program, also commented on physical differences. “I feel short here. In India, I was so tall.”
It’s true that physicality and personal space is different in other countries. We were warned in Spain that body language was slightly different over there, and it is absolutely true. I was often a victim of the phenomenon called “men taking up too much space on the train.” Also, I was surprised by how close people stood to each other: if you saw two Spaniards having a conversation, an American might think “They’re about to kiss!” when really they’re probably chatting about soccer.
Nicole Stanton ’15, who also returned from Spain (in the fall of 2013), said that she was surprised at life’s change of pace. “I loved wandering in Madrid. I loved watching people wander and sit and drink and eat all day long. [In the USA] there is this sense of urgency, of needing to always be moving and doing something other than that moment.” Tali Robbins ’15, who studied in Chile last semester, also had to change the way she moved. “I hadn’t driven a car in over five months. That was an adjustment.”
Some returners picked up on linguistic differences as well as physical differences. Sam noticed that his English had changed by being in a foreign country. “In Indian English, people don’t ‘graduate’ from college, they ‘pass out.’ It took me a while to get used to it, and I had a hard time with sentences like ‘I was at a party with five people who passed out.’ I have to change it here. I don’t want my American friends to think everyone I met abroad is a lightweight.”
Be it spatial, cultural, or linguistic changes, adjusting to the real world was only part of the homecoming process. We also have to find our place again in the Wesleyan bubble.
After being in Shanghai, Santiago, Delhi or Madrid, Middletown can feel like more of a hamlet than a bustling metropolis. Nicole was grateful for this change, saying “I just so appreciate the 10 minute maximum on any walk, anywhere. I don’t miss the hour long commute [to my Spanish university], however romantic the train rides seemed at first.”
Tali also noted the change from urban life to the Wesleyan bubble, explaining, “In Santiago, other than my host family, I knew only a small circle of people, and they were all spread across the city. At Wes there are tons and tons of people I know, all of whom live within a 10 minute walk. It’s a pretty crazy difference.” In contrast, the physical transition to Wesleyan was pretty easy for Eriq: “My first impression was that I was home again.”
Katherine Lu ’15, who also went to Madrid and returned in fall 2013, immediately noted the physical changes on campus. “The couches in usdan were different! They have cellphone charging stations now! The coffee is just as bad as I remember it to be!” Eriq also picked up on a change at Wes: “When did everyone decide to get into relationships?” Sam was surprised at the jump from sophomore to junior living: “Everyone’s so into cooking now.”
While these changes may seem ordinary, they are a reminder of how one can constantly be surprised by a familiar place. For Nicole, the new things she noticed seemed like a natural progression of life at Wesleyan. “What I didn’t realize is that even while at Wesleyan, people undergo so much change each semester. How can we not? We’re just surrounded by thoughts and ideas and new people constantly.” In contrast, Eriq felt like much of his social experience was unaltered. “So much of everything’s the same. Sometimes when I’m with my friends, it feels like I was never gone until someone brings up a story from last semester.” Sam adds, “It feels a little asymmetrical because other people have already been here. One feels absent but it’s nice to have a base to build on.”
One aspect that all of the juniors mentioned in their interviews was a newfound gratitude and appreciation for Wesleyan. For Tali, it was fulfilling to get back to an academically rigorous environment. “I enjoyed my classes abroad, but I also was very aware that they didn’t at all match the rigor of Wesleyan classes. Coming back to Wes, I was looking forward to a new appreciation for the caliber of our academics. I’m much more personally invested in my schoolwork here. I also really missed the speakers, film screenings, and other non-class academic-y activities that Wes offers.”
Eriq realized that he missed a crucial part of the Wesleyan experience. “Being together with all of your friends and not wanting the dinner to end. That’s something I missed.” Actually, when I was abroad, I learned that there is a Spanish word for the ritual that Eriq describes: la sobremesa, literally “after the table” and figuratively “that time where you talk and laugh for far too long before someone finally decides to clear the plates.” Coming back to Wesleyan, I was happy to find that the sobremesa was still a transplanted tradition.
Katherine agreed that she also missed the social scene at Wesleyan. “I missed familiar faces, but not campus itself. I feel more like a stranger, an “other” perhaps, but that may be just from my recent COL readings on Simmelian concepts.” However, she also expressed a newfound appreciation for the intellectual culture of Wesleyan. “The best part of Wesleyan were the professors I’ve come to love, and I’m glad I’m back where I’m intellectually challenged and actually feel compelled to become a smarter and more academic person.”
“Going abroad is good because it gives you time to reflect on what you’re missing at Wesleyan and it heightens your appreciation of those things,” says Sam. Like the other juniors, Sam realized that he was not the same person who left campus last May. “I feel like not much is different but my perceptions have changed. I try to view everything with a much more positive attitude … a snarky attitude of detachment seems counterproductive and worthless. We’re so lucky to have so many of the things we have here.”
Going abroad can be eye-opening in large and small ways, and I wanted to convey the many ways it can change your perspective through these interviews. I am aware that these experiences are only a small part of the mosaic of study-abroad stories at Wesleyan. If you have anything you want to share about coming home, please sound off in the comments. At least it will give you a good response to the questions people ask you at parties.