Student perspective: The ups and downs of studying abroad

The Newark airport on Jan. 9th was business as usual: hoards of exasperated travelers snaking through the TSA line at a rate of one inch per minute. A few feet away, I was in a frenzy, manically redistributing my 60- plus pounds of luggage to adhere to the 50-pound checked bag limit. Sweat beads forming, I finally managed to zip my carry-on and proceed to the massive security line.

I couldn’t get there fast enough: in my mind, the next four months of studying in Cork, Ireland would consist of strolling picturesque city streets, eating copious amounts of butter-laden delicacies all the while laughing with my new international clique. At least, that’s what my friends’ social media accounts had made abroad out to be, so surely my experience would follow suit.

I arrived at my gate three hours early only to find that my plane would arrive four hours late. Part of my redistribution-of-weight-plan had required me to wear my largest sweater, heaviest scarf, and puffiest jacket in the airport. Needless to say, I greeted the other students in my program waiting at the gate with a winded, “Hi, I’m Eliza” and tried my best to hide the extent to which I was massively overheated.

After a sleepless flight and groggy three-hour bus ride, we finally made it to Cork, a small city south of Dublin. I desperately wanted a shower and food, but our program director told us that because of the flight delay, we had only ten minutes before we were to begin our orientation program. She distributed mushy white bread and mayonnaise sandwiches (mayonnaise appears to be a staple in Ireland) and we made our way into our new apartments.

As a first-year, I had been warned countless times that my first three weeks at college would be a tumultuous transition characterized by uncertainty, surface friendships, and getting lost. My transition into Colby was actually relatively smooth. However this description perfectly captured my first few weeks abroad.

Our first order of business: immigration. I had naively assumed that, because our program didn’t require a Visa, we were all set in terms of registering as immigrants. I was very, very, wrong. We were quickly informed that we had three weeks to register as immigrants in Cork or we risked deportation. Registering required walking forty minutes to the Garda station, waiting in line for another forty, being informed by a curt, uninterested immigration officer that I was missing a form, and waking up early the next morning to repeat the process.

My immigration experience admittedly put me in a funk that persisted throughout the week as I tried to navigate my way to my new classes and figure out how to purchase textbooks that were nowhere to be found in the campus bookstore. University College Cork is beautiful, but it felt huge at first considering the 20,000 student population in comparison to Colby’s 1,800. I felt lost among the throngs of Irish cliques who talked with a thick accent and were clad in heavy makeup and high-heeled shoes. I longed for familiarity in the form of Bob’s breakfast, first floor Miller, and Spa dillas.

On the first weekend, my friends and I decided to go on a bus trip to the Cliffs of Moher. The views were stunning, and it was refreshing to get out of the city and into nature. But I felt like a hypocrite posting a polished picture on social media that night. I was battling a 103 fever, still missed Colby and my friends back at school, and yet I was leading my Instagram followers to believe that all was perfect.

But slowly, I felt things start to change. My immigration card arrived, I began to figure out how to get to classes without getting lost, I formed close relationships with people in my program, and I even found a new love for Irish scones (turns out Irish butter is also a staple — and it’s so good). I signed up for hikes, explored Cork city, and found my favorite parks and cafés to study in after realizing the University Cork College library wasn’t for me. I joined the photography club and started taking dance classes at night. With each passing day, I felt more and more settled, and I started to fall in love with my new university and this breathtaking country.

So it turns out abroad isn’t simply walking through city streets eating pastries: it’s much more fulfilling than that. It’s about making mistakes, meeting new people, embracing difference, and, of course, feeling like an American idiot sometimes. But most importantly, it’s about allowing time to transition into a new country and university. I wish someone had told me back in Jan. when I had gotten lost yet again on the way to my “Women in Literature” class and still hadn’t found a printer or bathroom on campus to simply remain patient. Settling into a foreign country doesn’t happen overnight.

My life feels much more slow-paced this semester than it has ever been, and I’m grateful for that. I’m trying to prolong these last few months because I know that when I’m sitting at Bob’s breakfast or in Miller next year, I’ll feel a pang of longing for my daily routine here at UCC. I’m so lucky to have the opportunity to study abroad, and I encourage anyone who is thinking about it to go for it— but don’t freak out if everything isn’t perfect right away. It takes time, and it’s worth the wait.

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