I’ve always felt most empowered when I’ve pushed myself to go outside of my comfort zone, so I am constantly seeking out new things to try and new places to go. I spoke in front of crowds when I was scared of public speaking. I moved across the country to go to college in a state where – just months before – I hadn’t ever imagined myself. And, last fall, I decided the next thing I wanted to take on was living and studying in another country.
I did all that I could to be as prepared as possible, and after months of research, paperwork, and uncertainty, it was finally time. I couldn’t wait to land in London so I could start meeting people, exploring the city, and thriving in my new home. And, soon enough, I was there. I could hardly sleep on the plane, but I knew I had to stay up as late as I could to get on a normal sleep schedule despite the jet lag. I had heard from others whose semesters abroad started earlier than mine that they immediately made friends upon their arrival and started exploring on the very first evening; needless to say, I had high expectations, and I didn’t want to miss out on any opportunities to make friends right away.
I checked in, got the keys to my flat, put my bags down in my room… and burst into tears. I had been so excited to have my own room and bathroom while still sharing a flat with some other students, and all I wanted was to shower after my long flight and then go meet my new flatmates. But, when I got there, I was suddenly all alone. My bathroom door had somehow locked from the outside, so I couldn’t enter, and I hadn’t seen anyone else in the flat yet. Overwhelmed, I tried to FaceTime home, but the wifi I had registered for in advance wouldn’t work. I still hadn’t gotten a response from the advisor at my new university about changing my schedule, so I was currently registered for courses that weren’t going to get me credits I needed. I knew how incredibly fortunate I was to have this opportunity, and I kept reminding myself of that, but since I had arrived nothing seemed to be going to plan. Maybe I made the wrong decision by coming here, I thought.
I was too exhausted and emotional to even think about knocking on neighbors’ doors to see if anyone else was there, and I couldn’t even imagine going out with a group of people and beginning to explore the city on my first night (what I imagined everyone else was doing).
Eventually, I managed to unlock my bathroom door and figure out the wifi situation. I stayed up as long as I could, went to sleep, woke up at the break of dawn ready for a better day, fell back asleep, and woke back up in the afternoon feeling horrible again (a combination of the long day of travel, the jet lag, and the fact that I hadn’t eaten in a day). But, I needed to go put my covid test in the mail.
Wearing pajama pants, I finally got up and went outside. I was told to drop off the test in a post box and that there was one right across the street. It was after thirty more minutes of walking around, looking for something that I didn’t know how to recognize in this new country, that I finally found another person to ask. Once I knew what the post box looked like, I saw at least three more on my walk back to where I came from. I walked back to my flat in tears, frustrated that I didn’t even know which way to look when I crossed the street.
I shouldn’t have compared my experience to anyone else’s, but I was worried that everyone else (though it had only been a day) had already made their friends, settled in, and started moving forward with their best semester ever. I missed my family, my friends, and my home, and I was confused because I had never really been homesick before.
With support and encouragement from back home, I finally began unpacking and was beginning to feel a little better. That afternoon, the door to my flat opened, and four girls – who had also just arrived in London for their semester abroad – showed up, excited to meet me. The rest of the night was spent getting to know my new flatmates, finally eating some real food, and making plans for the rest of the week.
It turned out that three of my flatmates had only just arrived that morning, and, ironically, the one who had also arrived the day I did had also spent the first evening feeling lonely (but also too overwhelmed and exhausted to go try and meet anyone) in her bedroom, one wall away. After finally getting a good night’s sleep and being reassured that I would, in fact, make friends here, I woke up feeling refreshed, comfortable, and incredibly excited for my new journey. Most importantly, I had learned my first fews lesson abroad:
1. Be patient. It takes time to get adjusted to a new place, to build relationships, and to get confident outside of your comfort zone.
2. Don’t compare your experience. This lesson is definitely important outside of studying abroad as well. I usually try to stay focused on everything I have to be grateful for (a LOT!), but when I got to my destination and it wasn’t immediately how I pictured it, I questioned all of the decisions I had made to get there. As much as I wanted to maintain a positive attitude and focus on how fortunate I was to be there, the thoughts cycling through my head were: I miss my family. I miss my friends. What if I don’t make friends here? What if I spend a semester feeling lonely here when I could’ve stayed at Alabama, where I knew I had good friends and roommates and classes? I needed to simply acknowledge that there would be a unique experience here for me, just like there would be a unique experience for every other individual.
3. Jet lag stinks. Looking back on my first day, and considering my normal attitude and outlook, it’s pretty clear that jet lag and sleep deprivation were the main culprits and the reason I had to relearn all these lessons I thought I already knew. Getting adjusted to any kind of change takes time, but what I really needed was a couple nights of sleep, an actual meal, and some reminders that I wasn’t alone.
It’s only been a week, but I already know I’m not going to feel ready to leave at the end of the semester. In just a week, I’ve grown close with my flatmates, learned how the public transportation system works, and seen so many sites (Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the London Eye, Piccadilly Circus, and Regent Street, just to name a few). I’ve had fish and chips, crumpets and tea, and, with the help of a British friend, I’ve learned how to use our kitchen appliances (which are surprisingly different from those in my kitchen back home). My bathroom door works properly now, my wifi is all set up, and my class schedule (or “timetable,” as they call it here) is sorted out. I’m still not entirely sure which way to look every time I cross the street, but I am so happy, so grateful, and so excited to continue my semester abroad!