By Magdalena Knapp, Contributing Writer
Each year, 3.7 million students study abroad throughout the world. I am one of these 3.7 million students, and my journey began eight months ago at the airport of Milan, Italy.
People told me ‘Studying abroad is a great experience. You meet new people, get to know a new culture and learn a new language.’ They were right; it is an amazing and unique experience. However, no one told me about the dark sides of studying abroad – the tears, and the obstacles.
When I left my hometown in August of 2016, I knew I would face new situations, but I did not know that the first of these situations would come so quickly. When I arrived at the airport in New York, my connecting flight to St. Louis was cancelled. It was 7 p.m. local time. I tried, with my poor English-speaking capacities, to book a new flight for the same day to St. Louis, but I quickly discovered that no flight was available that day.
By that time, it was 10 p.m. The next available flight was at 6 a.m. the next morning, so I decided to find my inner camper and sleep at the airport. Sitting on the floor of the New York airport, I asked myself if this was a sign, and if I had even made the right decision in coming to another continent.
When I finally arrived at McKendree University two flights and 15 hours later (including delays), all these negative thoughts were gone. On my dorm door was a little poster with my name on it and a map from my hometown (picture to the right). When I saw that, I started crying. My emotions were a mixture of joy that I had made it here, sadness that I was not going to see my family and friends for a while and a feeling of pressure that fell off of me.
The first weeks of my freshman semester were exciting and full of challenges. During this time, I had a hard time taking notes and understanding everything the professor said at the same time. I became a bit discouraged, and was upset with myself. Then, I understood what the problem was: I was still thinking in my mother language.
Once I started thinking in English in order to keep up with the teacher, everything was easier. Now, after a few months, I am completely used to it.
Another thing I was unprepared for was the money. Every bank in my hometown told me that my credit cards would work in the United States. Well, let me tell you something: They do not. I made that discovery when I was standing in line at Walmart. When my turn came to pay, my card was declined. It was embarrassing at that moment but, looking back, it was somewhat funny because the cashier felt so bad for me.
‘Studying abroad allows you to understand a new culture’ – Yes, this is true, but there is no book with rules and guidelines. You have to discover them gradually, mistake by mistake.
The first time I went out for dinner here, I did not tip and gave the waiter the exact amount of money. He kept smiling at me, but I did not get the hint. I smiled, and walked away. Afterwards, my friends told me that people usually tip here (and since that day, I’ve done it!).
It also took me some time to understand that if someone greets you with ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ you should not stop and tell them your life story. It is just a different way of saying ‘Hello’. I am sorry for all the times I misunderstood that!
Another discovery I have made is that ‘Uber’ is not the actual last name of the taxi driver, but just the name of the taxi company. These are just some of the “mistakes” I have made during my first weeks here.
Everyone who goes to study in a different country has to face some of these situations. One thing I have learned is that in some years, you will be able to look back at it, smile and listen to the funny anecdotes your friends can tell about you.
I am not going to lie to you: The first month of studying abroad is hard. You are going to miss your family and friends. The bed you sleep in now will not actually feel like your bed.
Some people who are very into smells as I am will confirm that it smells different as well. Some smells remind you of certain things, but if you leave your country, there are going to be different smells regardless. You do not associate anything with them – until you create associations. That is the moment when you are going to feel that “being at home” is where you are right now. This moment may come sooner for some people, but it eventually comes for everyone.
In all my honesty, I can say that studying abroad is one of the best experiences I have had. You have to overcome obstacles, as well new, unknown situations. These new situations may include being alone for the first time at an airport, going to a place where you do not know anyone, or maybe dipping a fry in an ‘Oreo-Milkshake’ (It was a gross and amazing experience at the same time!).
However, you can make it! Studying abroad is not all sunshine, ice cream and relaxing. It gets windy and rainy sometimes, but that is what makes you stronger. It is a wonderful yet difficult experience at the same time. I have learned how to be tougher, stronger and more independent. I have stepped out of my comfort zone many times and have learned how to miss people productively so that I still can live my life even though I miss them. I have also figured out how to love from a distance.
I have made new friends and met the most amazing people I could have ever imagined. It was hard at the beginning, but every single second was worth it!
For questions or concerns, comment below or contact Magdalena Knapp at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Feature Image: Magdalena Knapp (fourth from the right on the bench) and her swimming teammates.
All photos via Magdalena Knapp.