There are no words to describe the pain that this will unfortunately be my last blog post covering the incredible journey that we have been on for the past seven months. As our time together has been cut short on very short notice, I’ll do my best to leave you with some thoughts after reflecting for a month and hopefully begin the process of preparing for the upcoming transition to the next stage of our lives.
Before I start, however, I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere thanks to everyone on the CIEE/Experiment staff and support teams, as well as all of the volunteers, for doing an amazing job of supporting us on this very challenging, yet unbelievably rewarding journey. From starting my application all the way back in 2018, to awesome interview and pre-departure experiences, to enriching camps and seminars once in Germany, I cannot thank all of you enough. Each and every single one of you has helped make this journey possible for me, even if I only got to interact with you in person once or twice. I know that the future of CBYX is in good hands, and I look forward to one day hopefully being able to give back in even bigger ways to this community.
As many of you reading this already know, exactly one month ago, on March 14th, we were on a flight heading back home to the United States. We learned that we would all be forced to go home just two days earlier, on March 12th, after being told for days that the rest of the CBYX program would become optional, meaning that we could either choose to stay in Germany or end our program early and return to America, with no repercussions. The speed at which things changed and developed was remarkable. Just one week earlier, I was gathered with my friends at a birthday party, and not a single one of us was even cognizant of the possibility that we would be going home.
The extremely sudden notice created a multitude of logistical problems for all of us, but CIEE and Experiment handled everything as well as they could given this terrible situation. The trip home was especially chaotic for me, as I had just traveled to Berlin on the morning of the 12th, only moments before the program was immediately ended, to visit my father, who was in the hospital after undergoing surgery. Although I was planning to stay for at least a couple of days in order to care for him, I was forced to immediately turn around and sprint from the city to train station in order to catch the last train back to my host community. I stayed awake until 6 AM, packing as many of my belongings as I could, slept for about four hours, and then immediately had to get on a train to Frankfurt. I never got a chance to say goodbye to any of my friends from school, my teachers, or many of the other friends that I had made in my host community. Now that schools have been closed across Germany, it’s still very possible that many never knew what happened to me or that I left.
On the trip back home, the mood was definitely what you might describe as melancholy. From my perspective, it’s hard to say that people were devastated yet, because I don’t think any of us even realized the gravity of the situation or what was actually even going on yet. In addition, many of us tried to lighten the mood by making plans to visit each other after our mandatory two week self-quarantine period was over. These trips might not have been able to hold a candle to the trips that I had planned to places like Paris and Rome, but I would have been extremely grateful to see my friends nevertheless. Unfortunately, a couple days after all of us had landed back in our home communities, the United States began imposing restrictions on travel and social interaction in almost every state, making trips like these impossible for the indefinite future. Initially, our expectation was that once we were sent home, we would at least be able to resume with the lives that we had left behind upon leaving for Germany. However, as all Americans have now been experiencing for the past few weeks, none of our 330 million residents have been able to experience anything even pretending to resemble their life before March 2020. For us CBYXers, however, the situation is unique: our lives have been completely turned upside down not once, but twice within the span of about one week.
On a more personal level, being sent home has been nothing short of traumatic for me at certain points. The most challenging part of the day is at night, once I try to go to sleep and am alone with my thoughts after turning my phone off and disconnecting from the outside world. Even one month later, I still sometimes sit in my bed or on my couch and look at one picture from a memorable moment of my exchange, and immediately start crying, seemingly unable to stop. Most of the time I’m able to resist the urge to start sobbing uncontrollably, but sometimes the tears win and I lose. About an hour before I started writing this final blog post, I cried again because I had just finished making a picture collage of all of the best moments in Germany with my friends, and couldn’t stop thinking about how much I miss them. I still can’t.
While “reintegrating” into society over the past month, I’ve noticed some other things about myself as well. Without question the hardest part about this entire experience for me has been that it has strained some of my relationships with the people that I care about the most, especially my closest friends. I’ve sometimes caught myself saying things that I don’t mean, being withdrawn or going days without talking to people, and just flat-out not being a good friend. I really regret this, especially since these are the people who helped me become the person that I am today and brought me an enormous amount of happiness and joy over the course of the year. Even if some or most of my friends don’t agree with these descriptions of myself, I’m obviously my own harshest critic and simply think that I could be doing a better job right now. I just wanted to take this opportunity to apologize to all of my friends if I’m not the most enjoyable person to talk to right now or if I’ve said something foolish; obviously, this is a tough time for us all and it is temporary after all. Once our lives eventually return to normal (and they will!), I will be overjoyed to see each and every one of you again, and I will sincerely appreciate every moment that I get to spend with my friends in the future, instead of sometimes taking them for granted in the past. I think that’s something that all of us can relate to now that our ability to hop on a train and visit someone for the day spontaneously has been suddenly robbed of us, and I think one of the silver linings of this entire situation is this increased appreciation that we will have for each other once it is over.
Before deciding to take this final blog post in this direction, I had a lot of deliberations as to how to these things would be interpreted, as well as what I wanted to accomplish. The reason for me being so upfront and open about my struggles over the past month is not to get attention, make people feel sorry or even worry about me, nor do I want to paint CBYX in a negative light. The reality of our situation is that getting sent home was a traumatic situation for all of us, and unfortunately there is nothing that any exchange organization could have done to make this painfully necessary decision any easier. Instead, my decision to be so open about my struggles in such a public forum was motivated by the possibility that there might be someone else out there who is experiencing many of the same things as me, and to that person I want to say something very important: You are not alone. I hope that by sharing my struggles, someone else reading will realize this, and hopefully be in a better position to feel comfortable reaching out to someone if they need help or maybe even just feel a little bit better, knowing that someone else has been going through the same thing as them. Although I still definitely feel down every now and then, I also believe that things have gotten much better as of late, and I will definitely continue to feel better as time goes on. Based on this, I would like to emphasize to everyone to try to remain as positive as you can, even though that might be easier said than done. Everything will be okay eventually. We will all see each other again, and once we do, it will be an amazing experience that none of us will ever forget.
Even a month later, finding the motivation to do anything at all can sometimes be hard, but if there is one thing that I have learned about our group over the past seven months, it is that we are one gigantic family, and that we are always in it together, even now. The support that we are able to provide to each other is astonishing and inspiring, and I am extremely proud to be able to call the amazing people that I went to Germany with my friends, as well as to even be past of such an illustrious group. I know that we will continue to support each other during this extremely challenging time, when we all need it most.
Building off of this, I would like to conclude by simply thanking every single one of the CBYXers that I was lucky enough to be able to meet this year. I unfortunately didn’t have the ability to talk to some of you more than once or twice, which I am completely responsible for. However, everyone that I did interact with has been part of a group of some of the most selfless, caring, and simply amazing people that I have ever met. I am extremely grateful that I got to meet all of you this year, and every single interaction that I had with a CBYXer was with someone extremely nice and down to Earth. The way that we were able to create such a tight-knit community in only a month during language camp was something that I definitely will never experience again, either. This year, I also got to learn a great deal from people with ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds that were extremely different from mine, and these lessons are invaluable pieces of knowledge that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Even if it didn’t end the way that any of us wanted it to, applying for and participating in CBYX was easily the best decision of my life. And for the friends who I was closest with in Germany and still am fortunate enough to still be close with now, I will never be able to express my level of gratitude. I was a much different person before CBYX than I am now, and that is definitely an extremely positive development. However, I don’t owe any of these improvements to myself; they are all because of my amazing friends, who taught me more about life and how to be a good person than I could have ever learned by myself. I am also extremely thankful for my friends because of the memories that we made together, which were some of the best that I have in my entire life, and I’m sure that it will stay that way for a very long time. Whether it was exploring the beautiful canals in Amsterdam, to doing professional photoshoots in Bad Laasphe in August and February, discovering snow for the first time, or acting embarrassingly American on the Reeperbahn, all the way down to the food, I am extremely thankful for all of the memories that I was able to make with all of you over the past seven months. Even though it’s sad to think that we won’t be able to make any more memories for a little while longer, please do not think that traveling home marked the end of our memories, friendships, or journeys together. Rather, it only marks the beginning.