Like many college students, I was thrilled by the prospect of study abroad, and spent my freshman and sophomore years imagining it, getting ready for it, picking out programs and daydreaming about how wonderful it would be to be someplace new.
I chose a multi-destination program that would delve into human rights in Nepal, Jordan and Chile. And so, in January, I embarked from snowy Wisconsin for the adventure of a lifetime — or so I was told by every person with whom I spoke, prior to boarding my plane.
And well, it was an adventure.
But a tough one, where you’re not quite sure that you’re going to make it through. It was stressful. It felt like there was never a moment to pause. The topics were heavy and, more than once, everything was compounded by illness. It was a layered, complex experience.
“Wow, so you went to three countries... how was it?” people asked with glazed-over smiles that signified they didn’t really care about my answer. They wanted a three-to-four word answer: “It was amazing!” or “So much fun!” Maybe, “Best semester I’ve had!” or even “I’d totally recommend it!”
All study-abroad students face this superficiality to some extent upon return. There is never an accurate way to sum up an entire semester’s worth of experiences, every up and down, every theme, every bit of travel, in a single sentence or two. But usually, it seems like for others, it can be summed up in this chipper way.
For me, it could not.
I did not have a fun semester. I didn’t even have a good semester. If you had asked me when I finished my program, I never would have recommended it to you. I still might not.
It was tough. Day-in and day-out, learning about the intricacies of human rights violations across the globe is emotionally draining. There were days when I got home and cried: cried for myself, cried in frustration, cried for the people whose stories we were hearing, cried because of the sickening injustice of the world. I was often mad, frustrated, and absolutely exhausted.
There were many times I wished that I hadn’t done it. I wished for a time machine so I could do it all over again. I wished I could pick another program. I could have gone to Europe; I could have sat in regular lectures and improved my Spanish and taken the weekends to go to Prague and Athens and Brussels.
For the longest time, I felt guilt. There I was, in the midst of what everyone else expected would be a shiny, perfect, incredible experience jet-setting across three continents, and I was counting the weeks until it was over.
There were good days of course. Spectacular days, filled with awe (the sheer, red stone façades at Petra in Jordan), peace (a long hike up to a monastery in the mountains of Nepal, where silence felt like a warm, sun-soaked companion), and self-reflection (a rural town in Southern Chile that eerily reminded me of my own childhood).
But those moments were not always enough to balance what I was feeling and learning.
Digesting so much trauma, even if that trauma is someone else’s, is a long and complicated process. There are some days where I feel like I’ve reconciled what I’ve learned. But there are other days, even now, where it hits me all over again and I feel sadness pressing at my throat and anger congregating in my tear ducts.
If you asked me now about my program today, I would tell you that I am grateful that I chose the program and grateful that I completed it. If you gave me that time machine, made me go back and choose, I would still choose to do that program. I no longer regret it.
I am slowly coming to terms with myself: Somewhere in my mind, I had equated success with being positive, and felt like the negativity I felt was a failure. But I did not fail. I learned, and it was valuable, and at times it did suck. Those things are not mutually exclusive. In the end, that semester was one of learning and unlearning in personal ways, as well as academic ones.
Genevieve Rohrer is a graduate of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.