My journey into study abroad was filled with many emotional highs and lows. It was like a novel; it had a beginning, middle and end. Everyone talked about the beginning and end, but where was the middle, the heart of the story? No one ever mentioned it, that time between acceptance and actually being abroad.
Everyone spoke about the end of the novel: the amazing, life-changing experience that going abroad is. Then, as my time to go abroad approached, the beginning started unfolding: deciding which country to go to, which program to apply to, how to actually apply. Naïve little me thought, “Oh man, this is gonna be fantastic! It seems so simple, just apply and go, no messy middle!”
Boy was I wrong though. Contrary to what many students have you think, simplicity and abroad are not exactly synonyms; they can, however, come to coexist. Here I outline my personal novel– middle included. In doing so, I hope others can draw from it and see that, although there are unavoidable challenges and discouragements, the journey into study abroad ultimately leads to the ending everyone raves about.
The Beginning: A time of excitement, determination, and some headache
My mind had been filled with magical stories about the abroad experience since arriving at college. In the summer before my junior year, I began the application process to make this dream come true. The first steps were deciding where I wanted to go and what programs were available in my destination of choice.
All those hours of YouTube video-watching or Netflixing turned into hours of program overviews and summaries. Once I figured out where I wanted to go, the more “tedious” work began. The next step was convincing my parents to let me go abroad. As a first-generation college student, I had to go into my discussion with my parents with ALL the facts ready. Neither of them had ever heard of study abroad and they had many, many questions.
Their greatest concerns included my ability to graduate on time, being able to take relevant classes towards my majors, the physical distance, and how on earth I was going to afford going abroad. At first, it was a resounding no to going to Australia. I was disappointed, but determined to make it happen on my own, even if my parents weren’t fully supportive.
That summer, I got a job and put a large chunk of my income into an “Australia savings piggy bank”. I set up my own version of the 50/30/20 rule for budgeting where at least 20% of your income goes towards saving and the rest is spent on essentials and a couple treat-yo-self items. I also discovered the IFSA-Butler scholarships and Fill the Gap program.
With my money-conscious plan in place, I went back to my parents, showed them the websites and, lucky for me, they were on board! After that it was smooth sailing.
The Middle: A little less excitement, a lot more nerves, and too many questions
The exhilaration of going to Melbourne wore off about a week after getting accepted. It moved to the part of my brain currently being ignored because the semester was in full swing. As midterms and finals rolled around, though, study abroad came back full force. Not because I was excited, but because I had to book my flights and apply for my visa.
Once I went on break, it started dawning on me that the next semester was going to be spent out of the states. I was quite shocked when the thought of that actually made me nervous not excited. Why was I nervous if study abroad was so magical? No one warned me about the mixed emotions! I second guessed my decision to go so far from my family. I couldn’t go on this journey completely by myself! I had never done that before. My parents only advice to me was “It’s the opportunity of a lifetime! Something we never had.” How was I supposed to live up to that?
As the time got closer and closer to leave, I was peppered with questions. From my closest family to the friend of a friend who heard from their friend I was leaving. Everyone wanted to know all the details. Where was I living, with whom, what classes was I taking, what about cell phones, where will you travel? I couldn’t even think of what to pack, let alone come up with answers to their questions! I felt really overwhelmed during that time between my acceptance and the ultimate destination. I was able to calm myself down as the time came near by taking things one step at a time. Instead of focusing on the twenty things that needed to get done before leaving the states, I chose one thing a day or a week and gave my attention to it.
The End: Getting into the rhythm of things and a lot more excitement
The moment I stepped onto my international flight to Sydney, it was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. This was it! No turning back now! The excitement started ramping up again and I thought, “Okay, I’m gonna make it one way or another”. Those first few days abroad were tricky. It was a continuous pinch-me moment, but I also had to start adjusting to the distance from friends and family and the cost of everything amongst other things.
One of the first things I did was download Google sheets and make a budget spreadsheet. On it, I recorded all the money I was spending and had it total it up for me. This way, I always knew my budget for activities and avoided the paranoia of an angry parental phone call or overdraft fee from my bank. Doing this helped me feel like my abroad experience could actually begin.
I also downloaded many communication apps to keep in touch with people back home. Facebook messenger, Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Facetime are a few that helped me stay in touch and feel connected.
At the end of the day, the greatest lesson was learning to be proactive and independent with my study abroad experience. By taking control of my own experiences, I was able to use the novel into my abroad journey to feel prepared and strong enough to take the actual abroad experience by storm.
Gabriella Sallai is a Physics and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies major at Franklin & Marshall College and studied abroad with IFSA-at University of Melbourne in Australia in spring 2018. She is a First-Generation Scholar for IFSA-Butler’s First-Generation College Scholarship Program.