Final Thoughts, Part 2: Five Ways of Living and Learning (And One Way Not To)

Rebecca Sohn Trinity College, Ireland


June 5, 2018

Now that I have been back in the States for over a week, my time in Dublin is starting to feel more and more like a long, particularly memorable dream, or at the very least a parallel world filled with incredible amounts of green (such as the Hill of Tara, above). All traces of jetlag have long since faded away, and I’ve grown used to not constantly seeing my three housemates, even if I do think of what they are doing from time to time. However, I haven’t stopped thinking about what I gained from all that time spent an ocean away, not because it wasn’t significant but because it so clearly was. And while I don’t exactly regret anything I did while abroad, I desperately wish I could go back and give myself some advice before the semester started. So, in the absence of time travel, here is that advice, in the form of five things I wish I knew before I started my semester abroad. I hope that you, future reader, find it useful, whether you will be studying abroad, moving to a new place, or simply starting a new phase in your life.

  • Listen and learn from the experiences of others. Trust people who have been abroad to know what they are talking about. I don’t just mean read some travel blogs or guides to plan out your time abroad. Really take to heart the advice and experiences of others who have studied abroad – the good, the bad, even (and maybe especially) the difficult things. Even if this initially stresses you out and makes you more anxious about your time abroad, I promise you, it will make things easier down the road. All the advice in the world is useless if no one listens to it. When I was preparing to study abroad, I thought that it would be similar to freshman year of college in that while many people will try to give you advice, nothing is really going to prepare you for it (this may not be everyone’s experience of freshman year, but I found it to be true). And while my semester at Trinity was similar to freshman year in many ways, this did not turn out to be true. I would have been much better prepared, both mentally and literally (see below), if I did not dismiss the advice and experiences of others as not relevant to me. You may not take all the advice you are offered, and of course, take everything with a grain of salt. But no matter what you do, make sure to listen.
  • Pack lightly, particularly when it comes to clothing. Obviously, what you will need depends where you’ll be going, what season it is, and what you’ll be doing, but you generally need a lot less than you think you do. "Rebecca," you may ask, "is this really an important enough piece of advice for it to be #2 on your list?" Yes, yes it is. Take it from me – if you overpack, you will regret it not only when you have to lug your stuff around the airport and possibly pay extra for an overweight bag, but also every time you do laundry and fold/hang up your clothes. It is also possible that wherever you are staying, whether it’s in an apartment, dorm room, or homestay, you will have less space to put the stuff you bring than you are used to. And there’s always the issue of how you actually do your laundry; for instance, my washing machine in Dublin was a lot smaller than the ones I am used to. Here’s a good rule of thumb: one week before you want to pack your clothing, do your laundry. Exactly a week later, do it again. This will allow you to see exactly what you wear in one week and only one week, and to pack only this clothing. Yes, you should back just one week’s worth of clothing – it is much more common to re-wear clothing in other parts of the world, and it is likely you will adopt this habit as well. If the weather where you are going is going to change substantially, you can trade out pieces of clothing for a few that would work in different weather. You can also add 3-4 additional things, like some shorts, sweatshirts, or a dressy outfit, but no more. You should be able to fit all of your clothing in one medium-sized suitcase. If you would describe the suitcase you are packing in as large, and it is all the way full or stuffed, you are packing too much. More than likely, you will end up bringing much less stuff with you than you are used to having, but I promise, this is a good thing. Also, bring only the toiletries you would need if you got stuck at the airport (you can buy the rest there), and no more than 4 pairs of shoes. If you are kind of a mess like me and are thinking of disregarding this advice in favor of just bringing everything you think you might need, DON’T DO IT. I did this and regretted it almost every day. Your life will already be full of anxiety and stress at times; you don’t need it to be full of clutter. 
  • If you think you want to do something while you’re abroad, even if you aren’t sure, look into it, think about it, and maybe just try it out, either once or for a little while (if it’s something like a university club or society) before you decide it isn’t for you. This is similar to the classic “join all the college clubs” advice I received as a freshman and have heard repeated numerous times, but it goes beyond just clubs and societies. Don’t know if you’d like a program trip? Sign up for it – you can always back out later. Not sure you want to get to know someone you just met abroad? Spend time with them when you first get there – if you don’t make connections initially, they might not be there later in the semester. When in doubt, just try it – having new experiences is what studying abroad is for. And if you don’t have fun or something is too challenging or not your thing, you’ll just have a good story to tell about it. If you are there during Spring semester, you might feel like it would be weird to join some societies in the middle of the year. This particularly applies with performing groups, like choirs, bands, and orchestras, and also to sports teams. These kinds of clubs can feel scary to barge into, but they present so many unique social and other opportunities. For instance, I considered joining the Trinity College Orchestra, but never did because it was the middle of the year. I’m still not sure if I would have been allowed to join or if it would have been practical, but I never attempted to reach out to the society, so I’ll never know. This orchestra also happened to play at the Trinity Ball, a formal college dance and concert that was both expensive and nearly impossible to get tickets for. It would have been amazing to attend (for free!) as part of the evening of performances, including that of the headlining artist, George Ezra. You don’t have to overwhelm yourself by taking on too many activities, but make sure you have properly considered and looked into anything that might enrich your experience abroad. If you don’t, you’ll never know what you might be missing until it’s too late.
  • Take time to properly consider, internalize, and accept the possibility that you may experience mental and emotional extremes that you haven’t encountered before, and that some of these extremes will be negative. At times, you might feel more alone than you’ve ever felt in your life. You might feel a bit depressed for the first time. At first, you might feel constantly anxious encountering so many new things and people. A lot of this might be related to the mysterious and often-referenced phenomenon known as culture shock, which, believe it or not, will probably affect you no matter where you go (take it from someone who experienced it in a modern, Western, urban area of Ireland, despite growing up in an extremely Irish area of the United States). You might be incredibly homesick, even if you’ve never been before. These things are all parts of some people’s experience abroad, and were all, at least in small ways, parts of my experience. This is okay, and as these feelings are most often quite temporary (in my case, they were largely responses to initial culture shock or negative circumstances, like my broken elbow), it can even be a growing experience to encounter them for the first time. And there will also be emotional and mental highs, of course. You will experience things you never imagined, and it will be amazing, and life-changing, and completely unbelievable. But the highs are most often what you think of when it comes to studying abroad, and it will help you immensely to realize that no one is exempt from the lows. For my part, I definitely knew this, but never took the time to properly consider and accept that it could happen to me. If I had been more prepared for the way I would feel sometimes, it would have been much less jarring, I could have moved past it much quicker, and I wouldn’t have been as surprised that at times, it made studying abroad extremely difficult. 
  • There is no one abroad experience, either socially, academically, mentally, emotionally, etc, and for this reason and others, your experience is likely not going to be what you expect it to be. This means a number of things. First, make sure you do what you can to prepare yourself for unfamiliar circumstances. Do things that normally feel unnecessary, like reading the handbook for your academic department at your new university or program abroad, and being extra careful to know how to get to both your campus and your individual classes (if that applies). As I have said, make sure you listen to and consider the advice of others, but also don’t take everything at face value. For instance, I was told by multiple people that most students at Trinity don’t buy books for class, and instead borrow them from the library, but as it turns out, the School of English expects students to buy materials, and not all of them are readily available at the library. Academically, make sure you know what is expected of you. At Trinity and at many European universities, there is generally very little homework assigned, but you are still expected to be doing work at home almost every night. Planning your time out is therefore not just helpful, but essential if you want to be academically successful and not overly stressed during finals. However, this might not be true if your program is through a program center or an American university with a location abroad, so make sure you research what your academic experience is likely to be. Also, be very conscious of your own expectations for your abroad experience. When I got to Dublin, I was initially disappointed by things I wasn’t even aware I had expectations about, like the many cranes that seemed to mar the city skyline and the comparative shortage of things I associated with Irish culture, like traditional Irish music. You might find it useful to write down what you expect from your experience studying abroad. That way, if you ever catch yourself feeling disappointed about your experience, you will know why and will be able to redefine your expectations. 

Bonus: One piece of advice I did take to heart before I left was that it’s okay not to be doing something life-changing and exciting every moment. Sometimes, you need to stay in your room and watch Netflix, go to sleep early, and just generally do what you need to do to relax and take care of your physical and mental health (which, as should be clear by now, could very well be all over the place). However, while this piece of advice is undeniably true and should absolutely be kept in mind, it only goes so far – if you find yourself repeatedly watching Netflix, or getting into a habit of avoiding going out, you might want to ask yourself if there is something you could be doing instead.

At night, you can ask someone you know what their plans are, and if you could join them, or you can see if there’s a concert or event you might want to go to nearby. During the day, many areas have endless things you could be doing, even on your own – museums, city tours, hikes, boat rides, etc. And if you feel like you’ve done everything in the area, there’s always day or weekend trips – if you’re in a city, you can likely take public transport or cheap flights to any number of other places, and many times, anyone you ask would love to come with you on an excursion. I wish I had realized this earlier – nine times out of ten, if you are bored, you aren’t taking advantage of everything you could be doing, or everyone you could be doing it with. It took a while, but once I realized this, I had much more fun in Dublin. And this mindset isn’t only useful abroad – as cliché as it sounds, life is much more fun when you regard every day as an opportunity to experience something new.

So, dear reader, I wish you many new experiences and happy memories to come, especially if you plan to study abroad. No matter where you choose to go, I hope you come to feel at home, but may you also come to appreciate the constant newness and strangeness of it all, wherever you are, wherever you are going, and wherever you may be.