Thursday, 22 March 2012

"Is he in therapy?" "Nah, he's got me."

I wasn’t planning to write again until next month, when I am once again going to San Francisco followed by the BAAS conference/banquet in Manchester. However, I recently attended a meeting for outgoing year abroad students which inspired me to write this entry. Dr Rachael McLennan asked me to come so that I could talk about my year abroad experiences and how they informed my dissertation and led to my scholarship. As I sat there, it suddenly dawned on me that all the advice being given was still relevant to me, since… I am going abroad this summer too! I know – I should really try to remember that. Anyway, I wanted to write about what I wish I had known whilst I was abroad in case it is useful for anyone else. I also think it will be useful for me.

I had so many intentions before I left for Carolina, but once I got there my motivation dwindled and I mostly stewed in my homesickness and frustration. I don’t want to make the same mistakes again. I’d like to think that it will all just be easier this time and shrug it off, but if I have learnt anything from my year abroad, it’s that self-awareness is your best friend. I can’t know or prepare for everything that’s to come, and I wouldn’t want to anyway. Oxford is the next adventure for me, and my excitement far exceeds my anxiety. Part of taking a big risk like that is accepting that you’re going to be in freefall. Even so, I hope that my previous experiences will be beneficial (to anyone else, too, if you are reading!).

As you will glean from the structure of my points, I don’t believe in hard and fast rules, but about trying to create a healthy balance. Here are some of my best lessons…

Be Proactive and Assertive
I think at UEA we are lucky to have so many open societies which actively look for more members. I found that UNC was more of a puzzle, and I didn’t have much luck joining anything or finding out about events. Despite the early disappointments, I really wish I had kept trying. I wish I had seen more plays, attended more campus events, explored new places – even if I had to go by myself. I was so used to being part of a group at UEA that I never learned just to go and enjoy something on my own. It’s an important skill and it will stop you from missing out. Out of my comfort zone, I also became more reserved. I stood in my own way when it came to making friends and wasn’t assertive enough; consequently it took me a long time to make them. Don’t allow yourself to stop trying if it doesn’t go your way at first. Keep going. Push yourself.

BUT Take Care of Yourself
Sometimes it’s okay to just watch One Tree Hill in your bed (especially if you’re in North Carolina, then it’s practically research). Really. Don’t feel like you have to do everything if you don’t feel like it. I routinely tortured myself about everything I was missing out on, and it was pointless to put so much pressure on myself. When I look back, I realise that I do have a lot of good memories, even if they were just hanging out with my friends and not doing anything “significant”. Not every day is going to be exciting or even pleasant at all, and that’s okay. Being somewhere new is incredibly stimulating, but it’s also overwhelming. I wish I had been easier on myself, and done more to feel good. I would definitely recommend taking advantage of the free gyms, different sports/exercise opportunities etc. I really regret not taking up running in Chapel Hill, since it’s a beautiful area and it would have kept me healthier. (Better late than never, though – and Norwich is beautiful to run around too!) Also, reign yourself in when it comes to the food. I’m not just talking about weight gain (though that was a definite part of my year abroad), but about the fact that there can be a lot of additives etc which your body is not used to, and it can make you unwell. Also, be careful with alcohol. It’s all very well to have a good time, but you’re much more vulnerable in a new place with new people.

Communicate with Others
It’s great meeting new people, but sometimes you will just want to hear a familiar voice. I was a Skype and Facebook addict the entire year, and for the most part I loved hearing what was going on at home. I wanted to stay connected to my life in Norwich. It’s important to have encouragement from the people who know you best. It’s also important to be open with the people around you. Ask your new friends, your professors, etc, to help you out if you are struggling. I was often far too stubborn for my own good, and did not want to admit how much I needed other people to help me, or to make a change in my situation. I could probably have avoided a lot of pain and drama if I had spoken up earlier about what was going on with me, or accepted the olive branches being offered. It’s also really important to talk to people who have been through the same, whether that’s people at your university who have studied abroad, other international students, or friends from home who have done American Studies or similar. (Here I feel I should say a big thank you to Ailsa Bristow!)

BUT Listen to Yourself
I’ve just admitted that I’m stubborn, but conversely I was a victim of listening to other people too much. When I was having trouble at UNC, I found that a lot of people were (unintentionally, I’m sure) dismissive about how hard it was. When you have never lived abroad, it is completely impossible to truly comprehend how isolating and lonely it can be. Some of my isolation was most definitely my own doing, but a lot of it was out of my control. When you are struggling, it only makes it worse to have someone tell you that it’s not a big deal or that you’re just not trying hard enough. What is even worse than that is to believe it yourself. Be honest with yourself, and try hard, but don’t blame yourself if everything isn’t perfect. The other point I want to make here is how important it is to pay attention to your own needs. I think if I had had the courage to make decisions just for myself, and not worried about what other people would say about it, I would have been much happier. Sometimes it is not selfish or arrogant to decide that you know best, it’s just the truth.

Document Your Experiences
Takes photos, keep a journal, keep a blog (hi), make a box of keepsakes. It’s a good idea to carry your camera around with you, even just to take pictures as you walk around campus. I loved writing this blog. It forced me to have a sense of humour even when all I wanted to do was cry and book a flight home. I’ve written a journal most of my life (regularly for 10 years now), and I think it’s an excellent way to appreciate the little things in life, and to hold yourself accountable to mistakes. When I read back on my personal journal, it’s a little painful to see how much I struggled sometimes, but it also tells the most outrageous stories. The most dramatic of those were from my month of travelling around with Jess and Faye. I have many photos from our trip that I cherish and look over every time I need a laugh. Though it may not feel like it at the beginning, the year goes by very fast, and it’s important to preserve the memories as best you can. As was mentioned in the meeting, something like a blog may come in handy later when you’re applying for jobs. The biggest benefit to me was being able to write something that a lot of people were interested in reading – it actually put me back in touch with old school friends who had followed the links on Facebook. I’m intending to be a more regular blogger when I go to Mississippi.

BUT Remember Your Life is Not a Movie
I said already that I was a Facebook addict. I know it is a double-edged sword. Photos, communication, information, humour = good. Stalking, jealousy, wallowing, grammar atrocities = bad. I was so worried about what people thought of me at home, falling from my social/academic grace abroad, that I became obsessed with how I appeared on Facebook. I haven’t changed my profile picture in two months – are people talking about how I must not have any friends? Was that last status funny, or a little too whiny? WHY IS THAT PERSON HAVING SO MUCH MORE FUN THAN ME? Try to remember that Facebook is not a true reflection of reality. Also, whilst I mentioned that photos/journals are important, the best moments I experienced abroad were not photographed, blogged about, or shared on Facebook. University is an incredibly social experience, and I was so bound up in that at UEA. At Carolina, I truly learned to be comfortable by myself. My most vivid memories are of private moments in which I got closer to a friend, finally felt like I could do Zumba, or finished a particularly challenging project. I didn’t need to stop and take a photo in order to remember it.

Congratulate Yourself
This is probably one of the hardest things you will ever do. Well done for considering it, well done for taking the plunge, well done for staying where you are, well done for making the most of it, well done for coming home a better person. Applaud yourself every day!

BUT Say Thank You
I have to admit, I was not always as grateful as I should have been. I was so consumed in my own unhappiness at points that I did not take enough time to say thank you. I hope that by the end of my time I was a lot better at expressing my gratitude to all the wonderful people that supported me. Part of the reason why I chose to write my dissertation on empathy is because I realised just how important it is. It is because of the people that took the time to listen and to understand that I was able to keep going, to make sense of the difficulties, and to trust that things would get better.

And now for the most important tip of all…

For God’s sake, apply insect repellent.

Good luck to everyone going abroad this summer!

There's not a lot of reason to this other than the fact that I love Obama. And he has great facial expressions.
ETA: So I just discovered that you can look up stats to see how many people are reading. I have had far more people stumble across this blog than I expected! I know that some probably got here by mistake or clicked back immediately (especially if all you saw was the pic of my bug bites - sorry!) but if you do read this blog, please leave a comment to let me know! Sometimes people email me or comment on my Facebook but it would be great to get comments here, too, just to know what your thoughts are, if you've had similar experiences, etc. Once I'm back in the States I would really love suggestions for what to write about. :) /end vanity.