*Disclaimer: all of the names included in this editorial have been changed but all experiences are accurately represented from the writer’s perspective.*
If you’re a college student, you know the lengths to which people paint their study abroad experiences as the best thing that ever happened to them. There are Instagram posts in faraway locales, tweets avidly thanking new friends for their camaraderie in an entirely new setting and raves about late nights spent at the club. I’m here to call bullshit on the idealization of this phase of our lives.
The fact of the matter is that not everybody gets their glittery study abroad experience; it may be due to weird social dynamics, an inability to adjust, or any number of things, really. Why don’t we talk about these realities?
I’ll be the first to admit that my study abroad experience was less-than-ideal, and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the globe and everyone was sent home. My issue was mostly rooted in social problems. I’ve never been particularly gifted socially; I’m a certified ambivert. I need my alone time, prefer to hang out with people one-on-one and only specific groups of people don’t sap my energy. That being said, I often surprise myself by getting out of my comfort zone, so my sociability can kind of be a toss-up.
I approached my study abroad experience from a much more extroverted place than I’m used to. I approached people, talked my ass off and was really giving with my time — all things I usually have a hard time doing. The truth is that I probably stretched myself too far, but the even more likely mistake that I made was becoming friends with someone who felt the need to make me feel small.
I should preface by saying that my prior statement sounds worse than it actually was, but there is a sincere element of truth to it. Maya felt the need to make fun of me constantly: whether she was poking fun at my clothes, the way I acted or the fact that my feet were “ugly” — which was said while I was barefoot in my kitchen cooking dinner for her and three of our other friends. What was ironic was that she was the epitome of the phrase “you can give it but you can’t take it” — basically meaning that she could criticize and poke fun at others, but as soon as the same was directed at her, she took it very negatively. Of course, it didn’t help that our other friend, María, hung onto her every word, so I was often portrayed as the “bad guy” who was overly defensive and prickly.
A lot of my frustrations stemmed from the double standards present in this friend group, all of which were oriented around Maya, because she was “fun” and “exciting.” If Maya was uncomfortable, we were expected to adjust for her. If Maya didn’t like someone, they weren’t included in the group anymore. If Maya wanted everyone to get different meals when we went out so she could try different foods, we did.
Weirdly, I was never allowed the same grace that Maya was given. When I was tired while traveling and wanted to go take a shower, she would shut me down. If I didn’t want something else on the menu and repeated a dish at the dinner table, she would be mad at me. I once shut down in response to her behavior and didn’t engage with her, so she gave me the silent treatment. On that occasion, I ended up breaking down in tears on the walk home.
Sounds kind of middle school, right? That’s because it was. It’s hard to ignore the parallels between these dynamics, ones that experts have written about extensively, perhaps most notably in Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabes (yes, that’s the book Mean Girls is based on). Being in this setting made me feel like I was experiencing some sort of social reversion, triggering past social trauma.
I had a hard time in high school and didn’t have many friends, but I realized as a senior that some people held actual contempt for me. After being accepted to UNC, a girl from my high school, Maggie, and I were both in a group chat with a suite of girls that she ended up living with. When they mysteriously stopped responding to me, I was confused. There were only two girls who remained friends with me (one of whom I am still close friends with to this day) and I was later told that Maggie had told the group that I was a “bitch” and they’d created a separate group chat based on this claim. Maggie and my only real engagement over the course of four years had been in a group project over a year prior — and as far as I remembered, I had never treated her unkindly. She and her friends, a largely politically conservative group, had also disliked me due to my outspoken views since our first year of high school, so I doubt that helped. This was just one of many difficulties that I experienced in high school but have not experienced much since starting at UNC, so returning to this feeling was incredibly uncomfortable.
The problem with study abroad is that it’s temporary. People are less likely to take the time out of their day to hold someone accountable or stick up for someone because drama is a waste of time when you’re only together for a matter of a few months. But the thing is, the person who needs help with some intervention or someone else to speak up for them is in the same boat. I only had months. I needed help, but because of the social dynamic my feelings weren’t prioritized by anyone other than myself.
That’s not to say that I didn’t make mistakes — I did. I’ve asked myself multiple times if there were things I could’ve done differently, if maybe I’m just not that likeable and getting to know me is more of an uphill battle for other people than I realize. After all, I got snappy sometimes, I got defensive, I cracked some bad jokes and I made my fair share of missteps. But study abroad doesn’t really allow for missteps in the same way that the rest of our life does. When we’re spending only a few months in a foreign country, we don’t have time to fix friendships and stew over drama and get mad that we’re getting edged out of the friend group. We have to move on.
I didn’t really get the chance to move on, at least not as much as I’d hoped I would. Although I had friends in my classes, I largely didn’t hang out with them outside of class. However, I did make one really good friend with whom I’ve stayed in contact since we were sent home. Alejandra is a student at my host university, not a study-abroad student, and I’m really glad that I met her. I did have the chance to make some really amazing memories that didn’t include Maya or María, especially in the last two weeks before I got sent home. I got to party at gay clubs and soak in the baths in Budapest with my best friends from UNC. I challenged myself by completing a fulfilling mountain hike outside of my host city in Pamplona, Spain with Alejandra and screamed alongside her at a drag show.
I know what you’re probably thinking: this girl had the privilege to study abroad and is just complaining about it — and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. I also have to remind people though, that this op-Ed isn’t about that. It’s about being honest about an experience that a lot of people choose to idealize and avoid criticizing. After all, if we acknowledge that we experienced difficulty, it could be said that we wasted money and time. I know that I’m incredibly lucky to have had this opportunity and the ability to travel. After all, an imperfect experience doesn’t mean it was altogether negative. I did make new friends, although my time was cut short, and I did have good times with Maya and María’s friend group, even though it’s sometimes easy to lose those moments in the lingering disappointment.
I can’t lie, I’m always going to mourn my chance to make a new community of friends to love and appreciate, because that was really my biggest loss when the pandemic struck. I was halfway through and maybe I could’ve made all of that social struggle a thing of distant memory, but that wasn’t what happened. And as much as it sucks, it’s still a valuable experience.
If you didn’t have the best time on your study abroad, for one reason or another, I see you. You’re not alone. There are more of us in that position than we think and it’s okay to not see your experience through rose-colored glasses.