Illustration by Gracie Newton
I don’t know where to start. I don’t know how I could neatly and palatably tie up all that’s been swimming through my head since I dropped myself into the middle of Dublin, alone, and attempted to keep living, existing, moving, studying as if I knew what I was doing. It’s a transition that admittedly warrants more attention, intention, and hard work than I had been prepared to give it.
I can open with acknowledging that yes, there are a lot of articles online from college students documenting the time they spent abroad. In my research, and also simply by existing in a college environment, I have learned that these entries pretty much all largely include the same major cornerstones – “It was scary, I made friends for life, I saw beautiful places, and I wouldn't trade the experience for the world.” I’ve also gathered when a lot of students look at their experience from that magical hindsight place, it seems like those cornerstones are often pretty accurate. The struggle or discomfort seems to be minimized and reduced in reflection, when looked at alongside beautiful trips and global travel. This was maybe a piece of my decision – I’d come in contact with so many college students telling me over and over that this is essentially how I would “find myself,” and as a result, my brain was saying, “Okay, cool, let’s get out there and find Cassidy already.”
I’ve felt so compelled, even in just the first few weeks of being in Ireland, to write on this experience, because I think it is documented far too often with far too wide a stroke. In an age of social media being such a prominent tool in our lives, we’ve become really accustomed to curating a lens through which the world can see us. Why should studying abroad be any different? All that our home will see are the pictures of the beautiful scenery and the beautiful, foreign new friends. And these are important things to document, truly. Our loved ones will know that it was scary, that we made friends for life, that we saw beautiful places, and that we wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. In my case – I am no exception. I haven't necessarily shared with the general public that I got sick for the first two full days I was here, that there have been moments of profuse freedom followed almost immediately by sweeping moments of overwhelming isolation, that it’s been difficult and slow to navigate class registration and immigration appointments, that when I first got through customs I stood in one spot for two hours straight with white knuckles on my suitcase handle anxiously looking for the welcome sign from my college.
I would heed the future traveler to put those very familiar cornerstones of the abroad experience out of their mind. Every single experience is different, and I know that goes without saying, but it feels important to emphasize. There is beauty, of course, in towering monuments and breathtaking landscapes, and there is so much to be said for unknown, refreshing environments and the fostering of new connections. There is a quieter and often overlooked beauty, too, in walks alone through a city. There is a certain beauty in the sweeter, softer way you treat yourself and talk to yourself when you look around and realize that you’re the most truly solitary you’ve been in a long time. I am learning, in the most immersive way I ever have, how to embrace the enormity of the world alone.
I’ve been frightened and I’ve had pieces of myself tested, I’ve perfected this practice of talking to myself as I would talk to a good friend. I’ve become more familiar with what my expectations are and how I should adjust them. Picking your life up and putting it somewhere else does not mean that everything difficult about the ways you lived before will evaporate. My social skills have been put to a new test for sure, and I hadn’t realized what a massive undertaking it is to move to a new country, the operative word being 'move.' Right now I’m not just visiting, and study abroad seems to be for many students their first experience spending such an extended, rooted time in a foreign place.
When I moved to college without knowing anybody prior, it was an enormous adjustment with resounding effects on my life, why should anything less be expected of moving alone across the ocean? As I’ve been here and slowly started to assemble my own small comforts and routines, though, I am taking note of how capable and free I am beginning to feel, to a degree I have never been able to conceptualize or grasp before. I can go, meet, learn, walk, perform, participate, explore so completely unhindered, fostered by a city that doesn’t know me and has so much to show me. I have everything and nothing to prove.
Right now I’m sitting in a Griffith College residence hall in Dublin, Ireland, it’s 10:32 p.m. on a Saturday night and I have spent the last hour eating Indian takeout as my roommate and I went about our own lives. This dorm is a dorm, it’s like any American dorm I’ve been in except for the room keys are a little magnetic discs and I can hear German being spoken on the other side of the wall. This all just goes to say that sometimes abroad, life is just plain. Life is just normal and you need a night in, or you get groceries, or connections fizzle out. It is easy to unintentionally develop expectations of the ways this experience will feel, and so it is more than ever incredibly important to be aware that no life can be only comprised of beauty, convenience, and comfort.
“Thrilled” was the word I think I used with my mom when I got off the plane. I told my her “I can’t remember the last time I was legitimately thrilled like this.” I felt like I was full of light air, like I’d taken new ownership of myself, and like all the heavy things attaching me to the burdensome parts of my past were gone. There’s value to that feeling, even when it’s induced largely by airplane coffee or sleep deprivation. It’s also not how life works. Just by displacing myself, I didn’t suddenly ‘solve’ myself. Life here still exists like life anywhere; it can be difficult and beautiful, it can be mundane, and it can be awkward, and if you have issues within yourself they will still be there inside of yourself even after the seven-hour plane ride.
I’m not writing this article from the countryside or from a castle, I’m in a dorm room like the one I lived in when I first came to University of South Carolina, with feelings now (at 20 years old) that are so reminiscent of those I felt as I hauled my life into Capstone Hall in the fall of 2016.
My time here began lonely and weak, but I am learning to embrace all of the opening that the world is doing for me. Some days I wake up and it feels like everything is at my feet – I could fly to Germany tomorrow or walk into the center of Dublin right now. Some days I wake up and I am cold, and there is nobody that I love on this side of the ocean, and the ocean is so, so big. On both kinds of days, I learn so much.