“An unlikely pair against all odds”. Studying abroad and how it resulted in a friendship for life…

As an English & Creative Writing student at Queen Mary, Caitlin had the wonderful opportunity to study abroad at one of our Ivy League partners, the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Caitlin reflects on her study abroad journey and the biggest difference it made to her life.

I’ve never been one to easily make friends. Just go up and say hi. Find common ground. It’s easy. Not. Whenever I did make friends, it was selective. I choose the people in my life carefully; quality over quantity. Even at university, a time where most mingle at societies, house parties, and lectures, I closed myself off once I had made a solid group of five or so friends. I was able to focus on them, connect with them deeply, and be myself around them. So when I received confirmation of my acceptance to study abroad, it began to loom over me that I would be embarking by myself to an entirely new continent where I knew absolutely no one.

I resolved to spend my study abroad how I wanted to. Trips, education, activities, I wanted to experience the United States fully and truly make the most of it; making friends was not my priority. On my second day after arriving, one of the NSO (New Student Orientation) events was a party held in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. For anyone who has seen the classic film Rocky, this is the filming location for the iconic training scene in which he runs up long steps and holds both fists up once at the top. When I arrived at the steps, having been driven there in a bright yellow American school-bus, someone from the group I was milling with said “It’s the Rocky steps, you have to run up them!”

The famous Rocky steps

Not wanting to miss an opportunity of iconic fun, I started up the stairs, not caring if the group was following. There was only one person running beside me, and he and I both quickly realised reaching the top was not as easy as it had seemed. We fell apart laughing, not caring that we were the only ones running, or how out of breath we were. We were just having fun. This stranger’s name was Rafik, and he was an exchange student from the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. Rafik and I instantly clicked. He quickly became my partner-in-crime in the States, and we spent so much time together that others on campus would hardly see us apart. Despite growing up in polar opposite backgrounds (me being from the UK and him being from far more conservative Algeria), we were kindred spirits. Our wavelengths were so in tune that we would notice the same things in a room and communicate about it through our eyes alone.

Having someone so full of joy and light to explore my time abroad with made it something I could never have achieved on my own. Together we explored New York, attended concerts, visited an Amish county, paraded in glitter at Outfest, braved a haunted attraction in an abandoned prison, chatted at almost every coffee shop in downtown Philly, danced on stage at a 50-year tradition costume party, napped in our dorm rooms, studied for hours, and gorged on the the all-you-can-eat dining hall grub. Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games; we also helped support and pick each other up through our lows of break-ups and homesickness and schoolwork stress, and were there to help each other grow and become a better person. He taught me so many things about his culture, his city, and the politics of the Middle East, and I left the United States a far worldlier person than I entered as.

An unlikely pair against all odds, our study abroad in Pennsylvania brought us together from different worlds. What followed was an experience of unforgettable fun and personal growth, and a friendship I will cherish forever.

Caitlin is one of our Global Opportunities Ambassadors and is here to help advise you! If you’re a Queen Mary student looking to study abroad, or you’ve just arrived at Queen Mary for a semester or year abroad with us, and you want to connect with Caitlin, email Study Abroad Manager, Jess Tan (jessica.tan@qmul.ac.uk) and Jess will put you in touch with Caitlin!

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