I, just like many 20 year olds with a smartphone have a fair number of social media accounts. I refresh all my feeds more often than I should, and my day is often filled with liking statuses, double tapping photos, or trying out Snapchat’s newest filters. Now don’t get me wrong, social media is a really cool way to keep up to date with everyone’s lives and to see what everyone is up to, but it doesn’t tell you the whole story. We all pick and choose what to post on our accounts, and the combination of Instagram and Facebook give a warped sense of what happens when you study abroad. Sure, you get to take some fabulous pictures and play tourist, but social media creates a kind of sheen over the experience that builds almost unrealistic expectations. Before even setting foot on the plane, my mind was filled with images of my friends who had studied abroad before, surrounded by new friends, out on the town all the time and constantly full of joy. When after a couple of weeks in London, I’d yet to find that, I started to feel like maybe I was doing something wrong. It’s still hard for me to grapple with that, but the fact is, everyone’s experience is different, and there’s always that unseen side of things.
Coming over to Queen Mary, I had no idea what would be waiting for me. I expected to integrate myself easily into everything, and to walk out of orientation with a fair number of acquaintances. The ugly truth of the matter is that it took me a long time to really make friends here. More often that not, I’d be sat in my flat watching all the Americans I had met prior to getting to campus out in clubs with friends on Snapchat and wondering what I had to do to find a group of people to go out with too. I’m not the biggest enthusiast about club nights, but I still felt like I was failing my study abroad experience by spending seemingly more time alone than with others. I’ve cried over feeling lonely and worried that I would leave London having not met a single new person. I love taking photos with people to remember events with, but as the weeks dragged on, I found that all I had were pictures of London itself, or odd-angled selfies so I could claim I went somewhere. I kept looking at my Instagram feed and seeing all my friends abroad surrounded by people, exploring their respective cities, and I felt like there must be something wrong with my experience (or even worse, something wrong with me). In this way, the reality of study abroad was much different than what I expected. I’m sure it’s not specific to British culture, but it’s hard to integrate yourself into a space where people know each other already, or are aware that you aren’t a permanent fixture to the campus. I think it’s easy to forget that the back-stories to every photo aren’t apparent and everything isn’t always, as it seems. It’s important to remember that everyone’s experience is unique to them, and if yours happens to not reflect what you’ve seen on social media, that’s okay.
“It’s important to remember that everyone’s experience is unique to them, and if yours happens to not reflect what you’ve seen on social media, that’s okay.”
When I was planning my time studying abroad, I had ideas of traveling every weekend, visiting a new place all the time. Seeing how often my friends traveled, and their almost weekly posts of them in a new country enthralled me. I wanted to do that too. Although I’ve been able to do some traveling, I’ve definitely not done as much as I had thought I would have done at this point in my year abroad. I’m happy now that I’ve been able to thoroughly explore London, but as I discovered that my class schedule was wholly not conducive to going anywhere, I got more and more disappointed that I was going to spend time in Europe without actually going places. I feel like everyone I know who has studied abroad in Europe has managed to travel quite frequently, and explore places way beyond their “home” city. Being this close to so many countries, and having not visited even one third of them feels like a failure on my part. As if I’m letting down the adventurer inside me that had all these grandiose plans. Granted, I could go places for 48 hours, but I feel like that’s not enough time to visit somewhere, and that has severely limited my travel abilities. Whenever someone casually mentions their trip to Copenhangen or Amsterdam over the weekend, I have a slight twinge of jealousy because I haven’t been able to do that. As much as I would have loved to travel more, I’m still grateful for how well I know London now. I think no matter how you choose to spend your time, there’s no wrong answer, but I wish someone had told me that travel would not be a guarantee and that it would be harder than imagined.
“Nobody ever brags about their workload over Facebook or takes fancy Instagram photos of their essays…It’s called STUDY abroad”
When I first got my class schedule, I was excited about what the courses could offer and the variety of them all. However, as the weeks have progressed, I find myself falling more and more out of love with the idea of school. Having fewer contact hours with each class, and having no way of monitoring my comprehension has led to more stress than I thought it would. My level of excitement for each class dips with every lecture, and I know that come May for exams, I’m going to be beyond stressed out. I wish someone had thoroughly explained to me the British education system and had laid out how my semester would be built leading up to exams. Nobody ever brags about their workload over Facebook or takes fancy Instagram photos of their essays, so my expectations for this area were pretty limited. Nevertheless, I didn’t expect to have such a lack of motivation for my schoolwork or to be so frustrated with academia. I hadn’t really heard anyone moan about coursework in London but being here, I constantly feel like I’m not smart enough to be in the classes in which I’m enrolled. The reality of the situation is that adjusting to the UK way of teaching was difficult for me, and I’m still struggling with it. It’s called STUDY abroad, but I feel that the study aspect is often neglected when we fantasize about going away for a semester (or a year), and living somewhere new. I knew I would have homework and essays to write, but I had severe tunnel vision: my mind was focused on London, and how quickly I could get there. The school aspect slipped my mind until it was too late, and by then, the veil of social media’s perfect study abroad experience had already been lifted. University is stressful to begin with, and trying to adjust to a new system, on top of a new country and new culture is a lot to take on. The study aspect of study abroad frequently gets glossed over, and that was crash to reality almost straightaway.
My social media tinged glasses also neglected to acknowledge the monetary side of being in London. Barring accommodations, there’s the weekly spending on groceries and public transportation; biweekly laundry top-ups, monthly spending on the phone bill, and that doesn’t even begin to touch on doing things for fun. I’ve been extremely lucky in that I’ve got a job for my time in London, but if you’re here for a semester only, that isn’t an option. Going out every night or traveling every weekend adds up, and that’s a reality that frequently gets mentioned in passing. Sure, London is expensive, but living in a college bubble in the US, I kind of forgot that “money makes the world go ‘round,” and that some of those amazing things everyone posts about can actually be quite spendy. Everyone encounters this differently, but I found that the expectation of what London can offer was quickly countered with the reality of the price tags attached.
“In some ways, the reality has been better than anything I could have expected, and that’s what I try to focus on”
Although my expectations may have been slightly skewed about my study abroad experience, I think that my reality has been exactly what it was supposed to be for me. The last six months have been amazing, but they have also been full of questioning what I was doing, getting lost (both literally and metaphorically), and worrying that I wasn’t cut out to really be here. I find myself comparing my experience to all my other friends’ and worrying that mine hasn’t been as glamorous or exciting as theirs. I may not have loads of Instagram posts from all over Europe, or hundreds of Snapchats out on the town, but I’ve got my photos, and I’ve made a lot of memories. In some ways, the reality has been better than anything I could have expected, and that’s what I try to focus on when thinking about study abroad so far. That being said, I do like searching for that perfect Instagram shot, and I love sharing my experiences on Facebook, but it’s still important to remember that social media doesn’t show everything (nor would I want it to necessarily).