Travel abroad to venture outside your comfort zone
About this time last year, I was preparing myself for a semester abroad at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England. I use the word “preparing” loosely, though. Having never spent more than two weeks outside the United States, the prospect of temporarily uprooting my life at home and flying off to another continent by myself was absolutely terrifying. Mentally, that was something I could never prepare for.
The summer before the Fall semester was easily the most unusual of my life. I felt as though I was living on borrowed time, slowly but surely approaching my greatest challenge thus far. Of course I wanted to go — I certainly wouldn’t have worked through the seven months of essay writing, bureaucratic wrangling and visa applications if I hadn’t. But my eagerness couldn’t displace my fear. And I fully expected that.
I fully expected the tearful goodbyes at the airport. I fully expected the intense exhaustion as I tiredly stumbled off the plane, through the cattle line at customs and then onto a coach for a three-hour ride to the university. I fully expected that nagging, unavoidable feeling of “now what?” when I arrived at a rain-soaked Brighton without food, toiletries or a friend in sight.
Deep down I knew that eventually this would all become second nature to me, that I only needed to endure a painful adjustment period before I inevitably came around to appreciate what, I was told, would become one of the best experiences of my life. That adjustment period lasted well over a month. It certainly wasn’t expedited by a four-day trip back to the States for my brother’s wedding. When I flew back to Brighton in mid-October, it was déjà vu all over again.
Today, my semester abroad feels like a dream — three months of my life removed from my otherwise ordinary existence as a Rutgers student. And God, do I miss it. Everyone has notions of getting away to some extent, and for 12 weeks I was fortunate enough to experience life in another part of the world. I would be lucky to experience anything as fresh or exciting ever again. Yes, England has some breathtaking scenery. And yes, the culture with regard to parties, drinking and nightlife was completely foreign to me. But when I reflect on Sussex, those aren’t the things that immediately spring to mind.
First, I think of long, solitary walks in the bitter cold back to my flat at two in the morning, usually following a minimum of five hours in the computer lab. As awful as that scenario sounds, it remains one of my fondest memories of the whole thing. Every walk home, I’d look around at a dimly-lit campus secluded off in the English countryside, utterly amazed to find myself there.
Even more than that though, I remember my friends. Letting go of the people I had become close to was unquestionably the hardest part of leaving. During those times when I felt so incredibly out of my element, they reminded me why I was there in the first place. I doubt we have seen the last of each other, but at the same time it kills me to know that these people who became such a significant part of my life for that short time are no longer in it. In the months since I’ve left, new posts in our Facebook group chat have become less common — we’ve each moved on, met new people and created new memories. That’s life. You just have to hold out hope that the new never detracts from the old. For me, I don’t think it ever could.
I didn’t return home with crazy stories or sentimental souvenirs (with the exception of one: my Sussex sweatshirt, which I love dearly). What I brought back was a feeling, a time and a place that remains alive within me, that I can recall whenever life gets too dull and melancholy — that, and a reminder that I challenged myself in a serious way and passed the test with flying colors. Even now, at least once a week, I think back and say to myself, “I did that?” And for some reason, it never becomes easier to believe. If anything, the memories have become even more unreal, like they could never happen again.
In a way, they can’t. I plan to return to Brighton in another year’s time, and I have no doubt it’ll be great. But it could never be like before. The fear, the shock that marked my first few weeks abroad is utterly inseparable from my happiest memories there. Because of Sussex, I know something about myself I never knew before: I know that the most exciting times in my life are when I don’t really know what the hell I’m doing. Not that I’d call myself a thrill seeker by any means, but there’s something absolutely exhilarating about leaving your comfort zone that nothing else can match.
So do it — go abroad. Find a place you have at least a moderate interest in visiting for a few months or a year, and go there. Depending on the school, it might not be as costly as you think (only my plane ticket made my semester more expensive than it would have been at Rutgers). You don’t have to enjoy traveling, and you probably won’t love every minute of it, but chances are you’ll still see some beauty in it. Most of all, you’ll learn a thing or two about yourself at a crucial time in your life, when the world doesn’t quite make sense yet and you’re finding your way through it for the first time.