IFSA Butler





Hakuna Matata

  1. Home
  2. /
  3. Student Stories
  4. /
  5. Hakuna Matata

Hakuna Matata Really is a Wonderful Phrase

My dad has always said I’m an “old soul,” mostly in reference to my overwhelming need to take responsibility. While it is nice to be counted on, it’s also exhausting– balancing classes, a rugby captaincy, clubs and a social life feels like more than a full-time job, and after three years of maintaining that kind of schedule at college, I was more than ready for a new adventure.

Going abroad I was excited to be young– to be irresponsible, to meet new people, to drink, to go to clubs, to see the world– and not have to worry about making honor roll, maintaining an undefeated season, and always staying two steps ahead of the game. Of course I still planned on studying and enhancing my street-smarts since I was going to be with strangers in another country, but I planned on having fun– a word that I was using less and less during my time at school.
About a month into my semester abroad, I was chatting with a new friend from Louisiana about our experiences thus far. We both admitted we were loving Belfast, but that studying abroad wasn’t feeling like the “crazy awesomeness” people returning from abroad always raved about. In so many ways it felt like being a freshman in college again– not knowing your way around, not understanding how things worked academically or socially on campus, living with new people in a confined space– and almost as if we were backtracking rather than maturing.

What I had not realized at that time, was how much I had already changed.

As I mentioned, I had a tendency to get swept up in the ‘college bubble’ at home, rarely taking the time to get off campus, explore Boston, spend time with new friends, or even take an afternoon to relax. In Belfast, I felt liberated from these pressures and responsibilities that had become almost debilitating. I could balance school work with the rest of my life; I went on a date!– something I had never taken the chance or time to do until that point; I jumped into conversations with strangers; I asked people working in stores for help and people I passed on the street for directions; I called taxis; I took public transportation; I went to the city center and restaurants by myself… All of these were things I wanted to do but never did at home because of insecurities and a paralyzing fear of judgment. Studying in Belfast both forced and provided an opportunity for me to take these chances, and realize that maybe my mother had a point all the times she encouraged me to do something by asking, “What’s the worst that could happen?”


My time in Belfast put me back in touch with what I’ve unfortunately missed in years prior. It sounds like an exaggeration, but it honestly inspired me to pursue my passions. It reiterated the fact that I’m not just a transcript and purely goal-oriented, but rather an individual with interests and hobbies beyond what I am taught in the classroom. It reminded me that I love dancing, reading, meeting new people, being outdoors, and laughing. It taught me that I love cooking, value cleanliness, and am a happier, more productive person when I exercise.

More than anything, my five months abroad taught me life is about being open– open to new experiences, to challenges, to new friends, to unexpected costs, to getting lost, to getting found, to adventures, to spontaneity, to love.

Without this openness, I would have missed out on a defining part of my experience abroad– falling for the one boy in our group of 15 girls. At home, it’s hard enough for me to maintain my closest friendships let alone a romantic relationship, but living in Belfast I had the time and the confidence I otherwise would have lacked to go up and kiss him after a night of beautifully embarrassing karaoke.

Needless to say, meeting a nice Jewish boy from New York who goes to school 15 minutes away from me was not how I envisioned a potential romance during my semester in the land of the Catholics and Protestants. But that’s exactly my point: the most incredible experiences abroad were always unexpected. If I was at home, I would have fought the misdirection of events and struggled to make my reality match my vision as best I could. Being in Belfast, I was able to breathe, to go with the flow and allow things to unfold before me. This allowed me not only to be the most consistently happy in my short time overseas than I have been in the past couple years, but also to share my experiences with someone I love who now months later can remind me that those times were as real and as wonderful as I remember them.

Studying abroad, like college, is, sadly, not “real life.” When else will you have the opportunity to live with all of your friends, make your own schedule and travel the world on RyanAir? That being said, what happens abroad is very real. I’ve changed in real ways, I drank a real Guinness, I’ve developed real relationships, I can cook real Irish recipes, and I have real memories. That’s why, for me, studying abroad was about finally saying “yes”– yes to opportunity, yes to travel, yes to love, yes to fun, yes to life, to experiencing the moment instead of trying to control it.

Kim Gillies is a student at Tufts University and studied abroad with IFSA at Queen’s University, Belfast, in 2013.