During my college application process, I was excited by the opportunity to study abroad. When I chose to attend WashU, spending a semester abroad seemed even more imperative. Growing up in St. Louis — and then also attending college in the same city — I really wanted to experience the excitement and discomfort of exploring a new city and learning different cultures.
Once I arrived at WashU, I began planning for my abroad experience. I made sure that I was taking enough credits each semester to ensure that I wouldn’t fall behind if I were to go abroad. At the same time, I began discussions with my advisor about how to go about the process. As much as I planned my first semester at WashU, I never could have anticipated the events that would follow later that school year: COVID-19.
As my time in college progressed, the odds of me going abroad grew increasingly slim. As I started my junior year of college, I had resigned myself to staying in St. Louis for all four years at the university. Many of my friends had begun creating contingency plans for staying in St. Louis the next semester. Plus, our friends who weren’t going abroad were getting excited about the idea that we would stay with them for the full year. Against all odds — even with the uptick in cases due to the Omicron variant — WashU’s study abroad programs were given the green light to continue. Before I knew it, I had landed in Paris, France, ready to start my semester abroad.
It truly is a unique experience traveling abroad in the middle of a global pandemic. There are many challenges that we had to experience that the students before us hadn’t. With this post, my hope is to shed light on some of them (and all the other intricacies that come out of going abroad in general). That way, you can navigate your study abroad experience in a post-pandemic world.
1. THE ADJUSTMENT TO BEING ABROAD ISN’T AS EASY AS IT MIGHT SEEM
The transition from high school to college requires a big learning curve. However, before their abroad experience, students rarely acknowledge the adjustment period. When I decided to go abroad, I didn’t want to choose a program that had all my friends in it—I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone and give myself the opportunity to meet new people. After all, isn’t that what going abroad is all about?
On top of not knowing many people on my program, I decided to go to a country where I didn’t speak the language and immersed myself in a culture much different than that of the United States. For the first couple of weeks, this combination made it challenging to feel like I had made a home in the new city I had chosen to live in for the next four months. I remember leaving my first week of French class, a class where we exclusively spoke the language for 2 hours a day, feeling extremely far away from home and the people I loved. It felt like I was alone in that moment. Leaving French class that Friday, I happened to talk to one of the girls on my program and it turned out she also felt a lot of the same things I was. It was a reality check for me—just because people weren’t being outward with their difficulties adjusting to a new environment, it didn’t mean that they weren’t feeling what I was.
This phenomenon can be even more challenging within our generation because of the prevalent use of social media. Through social media, it can feel like everyone has found a place for themselves in their abroad program and you are the only one struggling with it. I will be the first to say, that simply isn’t true. Most people have moments throughout their abroad experience where they feel out of place in their new city. That may happen because of a language barrier, being away from friends and family, or simply just acclimating to a new environment. Spending time with other people in your program and talking about your respective feelings and experiences can help. In addition, something that I found to be especially helpful was allowing myself to spend some time alone and explore the city by myself to understand how I fit into the new region. I found that I really enjoyed taking walks around the city and spending time reading and people watching in some of Paris’ beautiful gardens and plazas. With time, I was able to meet people, both in my program and elsewhere in the city, and make long-lasting and meaningful friendships.
2. BEING ABROAD (AND AWAY FROM SOME OF YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY) HONESTLY BRINGS YOU CLOSER
Because I went on a program where I didn’t know most people beforehand, most of my friends either went to different abroad locations or stayed at WashU for the semester. Throughout my time abroad, I found myself realizing how much I missed and valued my friendships from both home and WashU. It made our bonds stronger. We tend to take advantage of having our friends and loved ones so close by; I know I definitely had. Having all of my friends at walking distance from me for the past two-and-a-half years, it was easy to see them whenever I wanted. The same goes for my family, who has never been more than a 45-minute drive from me. Not being able to see them for so long, I realized how much I cherished those friendships and relationships. This resulted in more frequent and intentional contact with each other and a bond that we hadn’t necessarily developed living minutes away from each other. I have enjoyed my time abroad and have loved meeting new people and exploring new cities, but I am also very excited to reconnect with my friends from back home. I was lucky enough to have been able to plan multiple trips across Europe with some friends who are on different programs (and even some from WashU that came to visit!). It has been fun being able to explore new countries with familiar people.
3. TRAVELING IN A COVID WORLD
As you can imagine, traveling in a post-pandemic world — can we even call it that yet — can be extremely difficult. Leaving the country honestly seems like a hassle at times; it can be a real chore to fulfill the requirements and complete the forms. As a student studying within the European Union, however, our lives are made a little easier because of the free mover program that the EU has in place. If you are traveling within the European Union and have the digital pass, traveling between EU countries is pretty easy and usually doesn’t require any additional COVID-19 testing. This is something I have definitely taken advantage of and have traveled to multiple countries throughout my abroad experience so far (and I have plans to visit three more countries before I come back at the end of the semester!). If you do decide to go abroad in the European Union like I did, I highly recommend leaving the EU and exploring a non-traditional study abroad location like Istanbul, Turkey, which was certainly one of my favorite trips!
4. TAKE TIME TO APPRECIATE THE CULTURE OF YOUR HOME CITY AND THE EXPERIENCES OF LIVING AS A LOCAL
I think it can be really easy to treat study abroad as a four-month long vacation. This is especially true since school is much less time-consuming than it probably would be back at home in the US. It can be easy to fall into the pattern of going out or getting Uber Eats for every meal and spend nearly every weekend out of the country visiting other places and people. This is something I did when I look back on my first couple of weeks in Paris. I definitely encourage people to take the time out to visit the local sights of the city where you are. For example, you can shop like the locals do (in France, there are so many beautiful outdoor produce markets). Some of my favorite experiences abroad so far have been sight-seeing within Paris with people from my program and trying as much as possible to replicate a local living experience in Paris.
These past few months have been one of the most transformative experiences of my life, and I have learned so much about myself and my passions. I have picked up hobbies and habits from life in Europe that I am excited to bring back to the US (especially the one about walking 20,000+ steps every day like the Europeans do). I am excited to share them with my friends and family back home. I hope that some of my experiences from going abroad can help create a more informed future abroad experience and I am looking forward to learning and experiencing more as my abroad journey continues!
Kashish Gupta is a current Junior and Danforth Scholar at Washington University in St. Louis. Despite being raised in St. Louis, she has yet to run out of places to explore and things to do in the glamorous Gateway to the West! As a Finance and Organization & Strategic Management student, she hopes to pursue a career in restructuring investment banking after graduation and is excited to share her favorite memories and experiences from the Olin Business School.