Having changed after a semester abroad, you find everything else has changed, too.
By Laura Osterlund
Everything is different. You’ve changed, but so has everyone else. The difference is that you’ve changed in distinct ways. Everyone has done a full semester. It seems like they didn’t notice you were gone. All of the holes that you left were easily filled.
You’re excited to see people you know on the bridge of the Brushaber Commons, but they don’t share the feeling. You see people in the hallway and excitedly smile as they smile back – people who had no way of knowing that you were abroad, so they don’t say anything. There are no hugs, no “How’s it going?,” no “I haven’t seen you in forever.” You’re both living separate lives.
You wait for someone to come up to you and ask about how it was: the dance lessons that you took in a club, the celebrations of American holidays that you had in your school building, the best ice cream and gelato places in your city. You want to share, but no one asks. You don’t want to bother them, and they maybe don’t want to bother you. And if people do ask about it, you respond by telling them it was great. Even though you want to share more – like when you went to that play that gave you a little more of a cultural experience than you expected, and the night when you couldn’t stop laughing in the lobby of a hotel about a word someone stumbled upon on Urban Dictionary and the time you had a sleepover in your school and played Fishbowl and Live Mafia – they don’t ask. And the subject changes.
You didn’t want to bore them with details anyway. Or they could be sick of hearing about it. Or you know they won’t understand. Or you’ve been talking too much and there’s just no more time.
You feel a little bit on the outside of things now, and you don’t feel like a part of the community anymore. A new kind of loneliness finds you in waves; subsiding at any given moment, crashing down on you the next You want to reconnect with friends, but you’ve grown apart after not seeing each other, and you don’t know how. You’re an outsider. And so, all you know is that you just have to be patient. To wait until you get put back into classes, until you join your activities – like the student newspaper and the Ultimate Frisbee team and the late-night study sessions. Wait until you actually have a reason to talk to people, until you’ve created a new routine. Wait until you reconnect with old friends and connect with the new people who have suddenly come into your life. You just have to keep telling yourself that everything will be back to normal soon, even though you have no idea what the new normal is.
You become a small piece in a large puzzle. You had your fit before you left, but once you got taken out, the picture somehow morphed and completed itself without you. So now, you need to try and find somewhere else that you fit.
But of course, it’s not all bad. So, you tell yourself to focus on what’s good. After returning, you get to do the things that you love and missed doing –what you couldn’t do while you were away, like playing in the snow, meeting up with your summer teammates and making yourself a bowl of Kraft Mac and Cheese.
You love it when you see the people you know and you can share warm greetings with all of your friends. When you run into the people who you just spent the last four months with in Spain, your heart swells with joy, and you get the feeling of hope that things will be OK. Because finally, they’re some friendly faces who know exactly what you’re going through.
Of course, there are other positives, too, you now have something fun to share about yourself when you take part in get-to-know-you activities in classes, and frankly, you like the ways you’ve changed. You matured and learned to be more independent. You learned to appreciate another culture, and your perspective on the world has broadened. You’re more compassionate toward those who are different. You’ve given a piece of your heart to the countries you visited and the people you met. And you’re filled with excitement knowing that you can return to the places you’ve been and keep exploring. You can do things that you weren’t sure you could do.
So you carry on. And you realize that, no matter how difficult things feel now or how lonely you get on the bridge of the Brushaber Commons, you would choose to do everything all over again.