I left the United States for the first time in the summer of 2019 right before my freshman year of college. I had very little travel experience. I could count the number of flights I had taken on one hand. Entering college, I did not think that I would study abroad. As someone who has generalized anxiety disorder and depression, I was overwhelmed by the thought of living in another country for months. I was worried I would be too anxious to handle the experience, never mind enjoy it. Despite having little opportunity to travel growing up and desperately wanting to see the world, I thought I would not be able to do it. At some point, all of my friends started to plan their study abroad experience, and I was suddenly struck by some extreme FOMO. Was I just going to be stuck at home while they were out living in another country and having so many amazing experiences? As much as it scared me, I decided I needed to push myself out of my comfort zone. I decided I needed to take a leap of faith. I am beyond glad that I did.
If spending a semester abroad feels wildly out of your comfort zone as it did for me, there are a few decisions that I made to make things a bit easier for myself. First, I did the same program as my friend from home. A lot of people speak about how important it is to meet new people while you are abroad and believe that going with someone you already know hinders this benefit. However, from my experience, I still met so many great people, but the comfort and reassurance that came from having a familiar face with me in another country made everything so much easier. Additionally, if you are anxious about going abroad, the thought of a potential language barrier can be stressful. I decided that going somewhere where English was the language was the best choice for me, as knowing there would never be a language barrier was comforting and one less aspect to worry about. Maybe it is important for you to not go with anyone you know, or you and your friend cannot agree on the same program. Or maybe you want to immerse yourself in a new language. If that’s the case, I say go for it! Everyone is different, and the two ways I chose to eliminate some stress for myself are just some of the many possibilities. My point is that if a semester abroad seems too daunting to you as it did to me, take some time to think of ways you could make it less stressful for yourself.
I would also like to note how great IFSA was at providing necessary information and support. Before departing the United States, they sent out a guide to our host city, full of places to eat, where to grocery shop, and fun things to do. This was really comforting to have, as it made arriving in Cork feel a little less overwhelming. They also sent a checklist as well as a guide for traveling in Ireland, which included detailed instructions on how to get from Dublin Airport to our accommodation in Cork. As an anxious person, new environments are difficult for me. What I find comforting in times like these is to have as much information as possible, which IFSA did an excellent job at providing me with. Additionally, Rachel Comisky, Student Experience Manger for Ireland, was excellent. I, like many others, got COVID-19 while abroad. I contacted Rachel immediately and she responded right away, providing reassurance, and informing me of what steps I needed to take next. We also encountered some minor issues with our housing early on, and Rachel was responsive to our concerns and did her best to help us.
Upon returning to their home country, everyone always says “abroad changed me” to the point that it has become a cliché that licits eye-rolls. But I’m here to say, as cliché as it sounds, that abroad definitely changed me in so many positive ways. I feel the most confident, capable, and independent than I ever have. I went on a solo trip to Copenhagen in April, something I never would have dreamed of doing even hen I arrived in Ireland in January. There is something about living in an entirely new place that is comforting. There is a sort of anonymity to existence. I was comforted by the fact that the people I passed on the street had no idea who I was and that I would probably never see them again. There are worries I was forced to let go of, and it was freeing. Your mental illness will not magically disappear when you are abroad, despite what your peer’s Instagram posts make it seem like. My anxiety and depression followed me abroad. However, my mental illness was different than it is at home. As a result of being in a different country and a completely new environment, I was anxious about different things than I normally was, which was almost refreshing. I felt like a different person while abroad. Now that I have returned home, I am navigating how to incorporate some of that new ‘Ireland Emily’ into ‘US Emily.’
Abroad is challenging in so many ways. But I am here to say it is worth it. Don’t let your mental illness convince you that you cannot have this unforgettable experience. So, if you think you can safely handle that discomfort that comes with existing outside of your comfort zone, take that leap of faith. You may just come to embody a cliché and abroad might just change you in the best way possible.
Emily Riley is a student at Colby College and studied abroad with IFSA in Cork, Ireland in the Spring 2022 semester.