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What are Seasons? I’m From Hawaii!

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The first time I experienced seasons, I was 17 years old. My whole life up until my freshman year of college was spent on a tropical island where “cold” was 70 degrees Fahrenheit, leaves stayed attached to branches, and the sun never set earlier than 6PM. Nearly every day was a beach day. 
I started to look up the relationship between weather and mood, and found out that I’m far from the only person to be affected by the weather. In fact, so many people are affected by the weather that there’s a very fitting medical term for it: Seasonal Affective Disorder – SAD.
I felt slightly better just knowing there was a reason for my unhappiness, and I felt a lot better once I learned how to deal with the seasons. Sunlamps, scheduled breaks, and holiday cheer did wonders – by the time my third fall came around, I thought I had finally figured it out.

Season Reversal

Then I flew 7000 miles to a different hemisphere, and February became summer. At first, I was STOKED. While all of my friends back at school were dealing with snow and rain, I was having the time of my life. Every weekend was spent exploring a new mountain or beach, and most weekdays were spent outside in the sun in one form or another. But then it started to rain (a lot) and it got (very) cold and (very) dark. Fall had arrived – in May?
All of my coping mechanisms back in the Northern Hemisphere didn’t apply in the Southern Hemisphere. I didn’t lug my sunlamp with me for the 7000 mile journey, and I wasn’t about to buy a new one for two months. There was no such thing as “Thanksgiving” down under and there was no Christmas in the near future. Perhaps most frustrating of all was the fact that I was supposed to be happy all the time. After all, you’re not allowed to be upset while abroad, right? Yet, somehow, I was.
I cried alone in my room for roughly two weeks until I was forced to be social at an IFSA catch-up dinner. It was there that both I and everyone else at my table found out that we had all been silently having a not so great time lately, and all felt ashamed about it. We spent the next two hours talking about the miserable weather, the heaps of schoolwork we had ignored all semester, and all of our other problems that had been getting us down. By the end of the dinner, we all felt better knowing that it was okay and normal to not enjoy every second of our study abroad experience, and we all came to the same conclusion: why didn’t we open up to each other sooner?

What I Learned

1. Seasons are wild.
Absolute madness.
2. You’re not the only one – trust me!
Once I got comfortable with opening up about that fact that life was not all sunshine and rainbows all the time, I found out that this experience was shared with everyone I opened up to. Contrary to what Instagram captions and Facebook posts might have you believe, everyone is going through something. The same people posting about conquering physical mountain peaks were worrying about conquering their own metaphorical mountain peaks.
3. It’s okay and normal to not enjoy every minute of study abroad!
While abroad, within the same week, I

  • Got minor whiplash (from falling off a seesaw no less)
  • Got a 102 degree fever that sent me to urgent care
  • Got dumped
  • Had multiple term projects due
  • Didn’t see the sun once

And yet I still didn’t think I had any right to be unhappy because I was in a foreign country. 
Well let me tell you – abroad or not, that week sucked. And the next week sucked too. I cried just as much abroad as I did while not abroad. Fun fact: life doesn’t give you a break just because you’re in a new place. My anxiety and SAD were not magically cured the moment I stepped foot onto New Zealand ground, and that is 100% normal and valid. I mean, I think more people would be flocking to foreign countries if that logic were true…
4. Crying alone may not solve anything, but crying together might
Did you know that moping around by yourself isn’t the best way to deal with your problems? Because I didn’t until then. While I was having a tough time, I received a ton of support from friends I made abroad and from IFSA staff — once I finally opened up to them, that is. My friends and I started checking up on each other more often, giving each other notes and cookies to cheer each other up, and coming up with fun ideas to do while the weather was gloomy. My flatmates and I started eating more meals together and hanging out more. IFSA staff listened to and answered my questions and concerns, taking away some of the end of semester stress. Talking to friends, family, and IFSA staff was the best addition to my SAD toolbox, and one that is applicable no matter what hemisphere I’m in.
5. The lows only added to the highs
Sure, I may not have enjoyed every second of my study abroad experience, but I’m so incredibly grateful for every moment of it. I learned more about myself and grew as a person in more ways than I thought possible that semester. For starters, I confirmed to myself the fact that I actually DO have SAD (what a BIG surprise!). I also learned about the importance of maintaining a good support system and opening up when life brings you down. My confidence and social skills, which had previously been lacking, increased beyond what I ever thought I’d achieve. In addition, I grew more independent, money-savvy, outdoors-oriented, and adaptable as a result of my experiences abroad.
When I finally started to feel better, I was so much more grateful for all of the experiences I was having and all the friends I had made. I don’t think I would have gotten as close to my friends (which have basically become family by now) had I not had the late night talks and cry sessions with them while working through all of my thoughts and feelings. I even look back on the winter days with a smile on my face. I realize just how many good things came from that winter, and now that time period doesn’t seem so gloomy anymore.

Best Five Months of My Life

Through everything, the highs and the lows, the sunny days and rainy days, my time spent studying abroad in New Zealand was the best five months of my life. My time abroad was magical, transformative, and overall awesome. Yes, I cried over some clouds and unforeseen life circumstances for a little bit — but would I not have done the same had I been elsewhere anyways? What I wouldn’t have been able to do had I not gone abroad — all of the hikes, road trips, hilarious nights, beach days, friendships, pancake breakfasts, and other adventures — made all of the cloudy days worth it. Maybe life is not so much about avoiding winter altogether, but rather learning how to make the most of the time you have in spite of the weather. After all, you can’t have rainbows without a little rain, right? 
Allison Culliney is a Geology student at the University of Puget Sound and studied abroad with IFSA at the University of Otago in New Zealand in Spring 2018.