I’ve been an international student for my entire college career. In 2013, I flew from Nepal to America to attend Franklin and Marshall College, a small liberal arts college in rural Pennsylvania. I moved across the world to a college I had never visited, lugging two suitcases filled with nineteen years’ worth of memories. I moved into a tiny dorm with antiseptic white walls and algae green tiles, a lost brown girl 3000 miles from home, and promptly spent the next year in a daze. I didn’t understand the food, the culture, the education system, the accents. Conversations were difficult: I’ve read English all my life, but speaking it was confusing, and my brain panicked and replaced basic vocabulary with ‘errs’ and ‘umms’.
Slow down, I asked my American friends. I don’t understand you.
Who’s Matt Damon?
What’s a soft pretzel?
I adjusted eventually: learned to move my tongue in unfamiliar ways, mastered small talk, opened up to people. I made friends, moved into better college housing, joined college clubs, and a co-ed fraternity, decided on a major. Still, at the end of last semester, before leaving for England, I was surprised at how much I was leaving behind: boxes and boxes of sweaters and books, an empty dorm room stripped of fairy lights and bedding, professors I adored, friends I cooked with, danced with, laughed with, friends I loved. Franklin and Marshall was now home, but I was moving, taking the same two suitcases but now newer memories.
I was wary of studying abroad; it took me a full year to adjust to America, and I only had six months in England. Luckily my worries were unfounded: I’ve been in England for just over a month now, and I’m perfectly at home. My years in America prepared me for being an international student. I’m used to being away from home, for missing birthdays and holidays, family and friends. Other visiting students, those studying abroad for the first time, aren’t so lucky. “It’s more of a comfort issue than anything. Even though my American college is far from my home, my family has always been there for me. And now the time difference makes it difficult to really interact with them,” says Wesley Maddox, an IFSA-Butler student from Case Western Reserve University. “I make my sister send me pictures of my cat,” laughs Victor Chan, a visiting student from Dominican University on the same IFSA program, and this is an often-repeated sentiment. “I actually talk with my parents more now than I used to. They want to know all about Oxford and my life here,” says Ian Becker, an IFSA student from Whitman College.
I’ve been in England for just over a month now, and I’m perfectly at home. My years in America prepared me for being an international student.
Some of the study abroad students’ families are coming to visit them, either during Easter Break, which lasts five weeks, or after the program ends in July. I hear them talk about consulting their parents about their tutorials and travels. In contrast, I’m used to sending my parents only the occasional update, and the new time difference is actually more convenient: I’m only five hours behind, instead of ten. I recently told my mother that I was going to couch surf for five weeks alone, and her only response was to tell me to buy a good backpack. This isn’t because she’s lenient: before I left for college, I had an 8pm curfew and every sleepover needed special permission, and the occasional fight. “I’ve learnt to let you make your own decisions,” she explained. “You’ve been living on your own for a while now, and I worry less.”
Maybe she has learned to let go, but I’ve changed too. Studying abroad in America forced me to develop social skills, to make foreign friends, to talk to strangers and acclimate myself to their new lives. The Oxford College that I’m at, St. Catherine’s College, has about forty visiting international students – most of whom are American. Like me, most of my visiting student peers are studying abroad for the spring semester, and full-time students have already formed groups and routines. It is easier to stick with visiting students, to feel a bond over the collective foreignness, especially when visiting students are rooming together.
Clinging to the familiar can be tempting, and I did this my freshman year in the United States: the first friend I made was from Nepal. I regretted not having many American friends at the end of my freshman year, and spent the next year making up for it. I’m determined not to let that repeat, and I make it a point to seek out new faces. After studying abroad in America, I’m also used to seeking out strangers, and I’m much more comfortable being a foreigner, and even bonding over differences.
But I’m generalizing: it’s impossible not to with such a large pool of international visiting students. I know a few who’ve completely adapted. They know all the best places, all the parties, all the landmarks. They introduce me to their British friends and I wonder how they’ve fit in so quickly. Maybe studying abroad hasn’t been such a big change for them: the language is the same, the food is similar, there’s an overlapping of music and movies and even politics. The tutorials are similar to office hours, and the clubs play the same top forty music. “I haven’t really gotten homesick. I’m enjoying my time here and I don’t want it to end,” Clayton Olash (University of Kentucky) says.
Living abroad is exhilarating, exciting, freeing. I haven’t been home to Nepal for almost three years, so long that I’ve almost forgotten what ‘being home’ means. But there’s something about living in a country that’s not your own, something about the knowledge that your childhood bedroom isn’t a short drive or flight away, that your siblings are across the ocean. For me, it also means months of going without Nepali food, Nepali music, the Nepali language. It’s something that can’t completely be expressed in words. I wonder if my American friends feel the same, if they feel out of place in ways they cannot describe.
Slow down, I ask British friends. I can’t understand you.
Do you really eat beans for breakfast?
Shristi Uprety is an anthropology and creative writing double major at Franklin & Marshall College and studied abroad with IFSA at St. Catherine’s College, University of Oxford in Oxford, England in 2016. She served as an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-to-Study program.