They Never Said Anything About Coming Back

Drop you finger anywhere but home.
Drop you finger anywhere but home. // Creative commons

“Was it incredible?” “Did it change your life?” “Did you find yourself?”

Sure! My semester abroad experience was unforgettable, but I certainly didn’t “find myself” in the way that pop culture dictates. Maybe I didn’t change much because I’ve been lucky enough to have traveled since early childhood, but in reality, it was probably due to my newfound madrileño lifestyle. The gamut of Amsterdam City tours, lazy nature walks with Spanish families and endless nights on the dance floor of Teatro Barceló did not make for a “new me.”

Actually, I only came back to Yale more lost than before.

Returning to Yale was like being drenched in ice-cold water: It was a return to a work-centered life, a wake-up call after an extended night’s haze. But, much like the shock of shivering after such an experience, I had trouble re-adjusting. My work ethic was lost. Bad habits that I had acquired abroad lingered longer than usual (long cigarette drags go here). In the end, UCS and the study abroad advisors were quick to highlight how to adjust to life in a new country. They left out the part of how you re-adjust when you come back.

Most people assume the hard part of coming back is being confronted with all that you missed out on when you were away: “Do you feel left out?” they ask, or “Aren’t you mad that you missed X?” (Insert glorified Yale spring 2013 moment here). It was something I hadn’t necessarily prepared for while in Madrid, because I was constantly creating my own experiences to take the place of Yale ones.

During midterms, I stayed up for 24 hours during a street festival in Valencia. The same day as Spring Fling, I was surfing off the coast of Lisbon. However, these substitutive experiences were meaningful only as long as I was removed from the Yale bubble. Once I returned, those moments were reduced to merely funny anecdotes that I shared with others, their original luster fading as my friends could appreciate, but could never fully understand.

This disconnect only widens as time passes at a place like Yale. Regardless of my experiences, the Yale frame of mind staunchly remained the same. The familiar ruminations of classes, summer plans, who is dating whom, etc. returned and took the forefront, but I was different. As much as I cared about Yale issues while I was here, I felt myself grow less and less attached while abroad, even as I kept up with others on Facebook. It was ultimately alienating — leaving the community I identified with so strongly for an entirely new culture, only to have to return and attempt to embrace that community once again.

So at this point, you the reader might be wondering: Why is it so difficult? Why do people struggle? To give a succinct answer, as one family friend and alumnus put it, “You get off the track.” By swapping in a dose of worldly perspective for another semester at Yale, you break the continuity of four years, the mindset essential for success in this environment. That shift, combined with the time spent in cultures where “being busy” is not applauded, produces anxiety, loss of purpose and, particularly in my case, isolation. The lack of a shared experience, a common narrative, isolated me from even my closest friends. I sunk into a dark hole that took a semester for me to climb out of, all the while maintaining the façade that everything was fine.

This is not to say that you should rethink your decision to go abroad; on the contrary, I think it injects a healthy dose of reality that can be lacking in the Yale experience. But it’s important to not get lost in the romance of the stereotype. More often than not, you will not magically find yourself, and returning to Yale will be a challenge. UCS and our study abroad advisers might do well to realize, then, that it’s not the going away, but the coming home part that hurts.

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