Abroad from Abroad:

Studying in the United States and Scotland as a First-Generation Student

IFSA Student waving Scottish flagAttending college in the U.S. as a first-generation, international student shaped me. I found who I am, what I represent, and what my purpose is. However, having to contend with the expectations I had imposed on myself as a freshman was the greatest challenge I have had to navigate thus far. To me, it seemed that being the only Greek person on campus, the only student my high school had sent to my college up to that point, the eldest child in my family, and first-generation, meant I automatically had to live up to some inconceivable standards I created for myself. I thought that failure to meet those expectations was intolerable—an idea that turned me into my hardest critic.

Having spent the past three years coping with those notions I thought defined my worth, I had to face my feelings and reservations on numerous occasions. However, I have grown to become the person I am today; I have learned to embrace what I want and to let go of the things that no longer serve my purpose. Although it was, and still is, an ongoing process, I would not change it for the world. After all, it is through this extraordinary growth journey that I ended up where I am today: Edinburgh.

College in the United States vs. Edinburgh

Attending college in the U.S. as a first-generation, international student meant I was already aware of the maturity studying abroad demands. The open-mindedness and personal growth one can achieve through evolving in a foreign community were the main reasons why I longed for more opportunities that would further push me beyond my comfort zone. Having spent a month in Edinburgh, I can now easily say it is one of these once-in-a-lifetime experiences one cannot simply relinquish.

At the University of Edinburgh (UoE), you can reinvent yourself all over again. The vast campus that spreads through the city of Edinburgh, the enormous student body that represents all kinds of cultures, ideologies, and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as the extraordinary social scene, are some of the countless reasons why Edinburgh allows you to be whoever you wish. Although evolving as a student—and a person—in a small Liberal Arts campus offered me unparalleled advantages (i.e., close relationships with professors, a strong sense of community through student-led organizations, interactive classes, and so on), the person I get to be while studying abroad is, I think, who I was supposed to be all along.

In large institutions like UoE, one can be as involved in social life or as invisible as desired. You can tailor your class schedule based on your personal needs and be as proactive as you want. Oppositely, in my small U.S. campus, it felt as if I had to catch up to an unrealistic standard of ‘over productivity’ as I always felt the existence of an overwhelming, silent culture of overachievement. Again, this was my personal experience and what I encountered in my own social circle—an experience undeniably exacerbated by my need to persuade myself I belonged there, being foreign and first-generation.

While in Edinburgh it feels like I only have to answer to myself when it comes to my academic and personal choices, in the U.S. it felt as if I had to face an entire community. Here, the enduring, socially imposed pressure to constantly work ceases to exist. People ‘grind’ and ‘hustle’ for their own sake, evolve in silence, healthily advance because they can and want to, enjoy an unexpected night out instead of planning for it a week in advance, and prioritize internal peace and mental health over a flawless facade.

Where and Who I Was Meant to Be

Coming to Edinburgh exposed a truth about myself I did not know I had been suppressing; my cultural background never truly aligned with that of the U.S. no matter how hard I tried. Ultimately, it was not college that brought me anxiety and lack of fulfillment—it was merely the American culture. I immersed myself in it at a sensitive age, utterly unaware of our societal differences, and with a complete lack of expectations when it came to academic and personal experiences. I spent so much time trying to ‘fit in’ and holistically enjoy my time in America (and I did, to some extent—I just always felt as if something was missing), only to realize that when you are truly meant to be somewhere, you should not have to struggle to achieve inner peace.

IFSA Student in Scotland

In the U.S., I matured and found myself. Evolving there as a minority student, made me realize the importance of embracing the characteristics that distinguish and render us human. Coming from a vastly homogenous community like the Greek one, my exposure to this cultural melting pot was catalytic to the evolution of my character and the formation of the life stance that currently defines me. Leaving this community to study at a European institution, however, has been a pivotal moment in discovering what I thought I wanted and what I ultimately need.

In Edinburgh, I found the inner balance I so desperately needed when I first started college in 2018. Having no one in my family to turn to for guidance, I had to navigate college all alone, in a place an ocean away from home. Three years and two countries later, I finally evolve academically for myself, in a way that works for me, through a learning approach tailored by me. I have a social life that extends beyond my studies and resembles so much the culture I was raised to love. Advancing with the perspective gained here, my last semester in the U.S. this coming spring will be defined by clarity and purpose. Edinburgh taught me that being whole means going after opportunities whose mere thought fulfills you, makes your stomach flutter, and causes you to dream big. Through studying abroad, I discovered where I feel whole.

Eleni Kytoudi is an Economics and Government Double Major at Franklin & Marshall College. She is currently studying with IFSA at the University of Edinburgh for the Fall of 2021.