May 11, 2017

What I Wish I'd Known

Sally Rifkin

I could tell when the study abroad application deadline was approaching at WashU because a couple of juniors reached out to me and asked me about my program. They were considering applying to it for the Spring of 2018. I remember being in their position about a year ago faced with the same decision. I was worried about SIT Netherlands because the few reviews I had been able to dig up online were from a long time ago and lamented the program’s disorganization. I decided that things had probably changed in the years since the reviews were written, and went ahead and called an alumna listed on the SIT website to put my mind at peace.

The girl that I spoke to on the phone, Lily, didn’t paint me the rosy picture of the program that I wanted. She said yes, the program can be disorganized, and it can be emotionally draining to be with the same 20 people all semester. But she also said she made some amazing friends, learned a great deal, rode her bike nonstop (which was a huge draw for me). Lily didn’t blindly praise the program, and her honesty helped me manage my expectations.

Truthfully, SIT Netherlands is not a perfect program, and I could fill up a whole blog post with my critiques. But I’ll save that for the program evaluation. My point is that going abroad can be messy. You get homesick and miss your family, but you also miss things you don’t even think about much, like getting ice cubes in your glass of water at a restaurant. The time difference makes it so that you’re living at least six hours ahead of people you love, so it’s hard to stay in touch even if you’re diligent. On top of all that, you’re living in a homestay with a person you don’t know who speaks a foreign language in an unfamiliar neighborhood.

When you study abroad, everyone wants to hear about all the cities you visited and see pictures of the foods you tried and the sights you saw. No one wants to hear about how lonely you were the first couple of weeks, or how expensive it is to travel, or how you keep getting lost even though you’ve lived in this city for three months now.

But I know how it looks from the other side. On Facebook and Instagram, my friends studying abroad post pictures of themselves in a new city every weekend. I feel mixed about the pressure to travel every weekend—on one hand, this is the time to do it, because who knows when I’ll be back? But on the other hand, traveling can be emotionally and economically draining, and you end up sacrificing the time you have in your city for endless airport lines and layovers.

One of the WashU juniors who got in touch with me about SIT Netherlands wanted me to reassure him. He wanted me to tell him how flawless this program is, maybe assuage some of the same anxieties that I had a year ago. And although I didn’t bash the program, I was very honest, probably more than he was expecting. But no one’s experience abroad is perfect, I emphasized—not even the people who post pictures on Instagram of a new city every weekend.

The second student who contacted me texted me two days before the application deadline. I had just gotten off a late-night flight from Spain to Amsterdam, and I was rushing to catch the last train of the night to the station near my homestay where my bike was parked. I was exhausted from traveling and stressed out that I hadn’t yet finished my research project, due in just a few days. But we texted back and forth for a little while, and even in my compromised state, I remembered the things I love about my program—my classmates, the high level of discourse, and of course, living in Amsterdam.

The next day, she texted me again and asked me what I wished I’d known before going abroad. What a strange thing to think about before “going abroad” is even finished. I couldn’t stop turning the question over in my head.

This is what I wish I’d known before going abroad. I wish I’d known that it was okay to say “no” to traveling to a new place, going out to dinner, or visiting a new bar, at times when I really needed to take care of myself instead. I wish I’d known that staying home on Saturday night isn’t a “waste” doesn’t mean you’re an introvert or antisocial (maybe it just means you’re tired!). I wish I’d known that it was okay to take the long, scenic bike route home and listen to a podcast instead of hurrying home to work on a paper. Yes, it is important to embrace new experiences and work hard, but it’s more important to look out for your physical and mental well-being.

I have four more days in the Netherlands, and it’s been a whirlwind of a semester. I’ve met some incredible people, completed a research project on a scale unlike anything I’ve done before, been housemates with a complete stranger, and learned to speak the tiniest bit of Dutch. And it hasn’t been perfect by any stretch. But as I biked home today—along the scenic route, listening to a podcast—I knew I would miss it.