It's OK if Study Abroad Isn't the Best Time of Your Life

Authored by:
Benjamin M.

Benjamin M.

My experience abroad has definitely not been disappointing. But it has not been the constant, neverending fun that studying abroad is made out to be. As part of all three summer sessions in Cape Town, I've been here longer than most other students here and I will remain for one more session after they leave. Partially because of this, it has been very difficult for me to connect with my peers. I also came abroad with expectations, history, and realities that have not been similar to any other student I've interacted with. For example, it was extraordinarily difficult for me to listen to a classmate facetime their parents and describe what they had been doing because I have no family to miss or missing me. I felt then like I had no purpose for returning to the States, but equally like I had no ties to South Africa either. Whether I unintentionally set myself apart from my peers or whether I just have a difficult time making friends, I have ended up by myself a lot. This isn't necessarily bad, but it is lonely sometimes.
Another struggle I've had is with language, but not in the way you'd expect. As a student who focuses on linguistics, one of the main reason I chose South Africa to study is because of the diversity of languages here. As part of my curriculum, I've been taking classes in Afrikaans and isiXhosa, two of the eleven national languages. I've always liked learning languages; I'm an advanced Spanish speaker and proficient in an indigenous Alaskan language, so I had expected to pick up these South African languages easily. This underestimation of skill brought me frustration and disappointment with myself when I struggled with both languages. 
While I had managed expectations fairly well before my arrival, I was still saddened by some of the realities of my time abroad. I was led to believe that studying abroad would be some kind of instantly life altering incredible adventure full of friends and fun. For some people I've met, it has been, and that's great. For me, development has been slower. I struggle with whether I made the right decision to come abroad. I think I did because if I was to go back home, I would regret it. The social isolation, while hurtful, is not debilitating and eventually, I made a friend to do things in Cape Town with. Prior to that, I did things on my own and that was fine; I wasn't ever doing anything dangerous or risky totally alone. Because I lack a robust support system in the states like many young students abroad, I have learned myself some things to support myself.
Keeping time set aside for the one strong connection I have made keeps me sane. Together we found a literally underground jazz club and we go every Friday. This gives us the opportunity to unwind and debrief the week we just finished. I also picked up a new hobby somewhere along the way: photography. Photography lets me feel a little more in control of my journies in and around Cape Town and gives me tangible evidence of how far I've traveled. Although they generally cannot help a whole lot, given as I'm halfway across the world, staying in touch with a few friends at home has been comforting. I try to reminder why I came to South Africa when I get down and that helps me remember the things I want to do. When I just don't know what else to do, I go to the aquarium and enjoy the stingrays. 
Struggling with classes, identity, fitting in, and managing stress are all things I would have dealt with in the United States too, but maybe not all at once, and that's what brings the heat during a study abroad. Feeling overwhelmed is natural and comes with culture shock, but because everybody around me was seemingly having so much fun all the time I felt like I was doing something wrong. I wasn't, actually, I was just much more familiar with my emotions because I live with them. Communicating with staff and finding new avenues of adventure really helped me realize I don't have to be having an incredible time 24/7 to learn from my time in South Africa.
Has study abroad been fun? Yes. 
Am I still able to experience Cape Town meaningfully? Yes.
Is it the best experience of my life? Probably not. 
Is that okay? Yes.

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