Author: Emily Neuharth
Location: Cambridge, England
Going into my study abroad semester, I knew that Cambridge was going to entail a change of pace compared to my constantly over-packed Valpo schedule; it was even part of what drew me to this program. As I was mentally preparing for this experience, I was making an ever-growing list of new habits that I wanted to implement while abroad, envisioning myself coming back from Cambridge as a well-balanced and just in general “better” person.
Much of what made up my “New and Improved Emily” to-do list were things that I have been wanting to implement into my life for years. I always reasoned with myself that it’s not necessarily my fault that I had yet to make these changes— I’ve never had the time or margin; my academic, extracurricular, and social commitments at Valpo have always kept me me running straight from one thing to the next. This kind of lifestyle has always created the environment for me to best succeed, even though I always ended every semester completely burnt out. I kept functioning that way partly because it’s what I’ve always known but also because I truly believed that the impressive list of accomplishments that I’d have to show for my hard work would always make it worth it.
The semester before I went abroad marked my halfway-point in college, and I had started reflecting on my time at Valpo and what I wanted for my second half. That previous summer and second semester of sophomore year I had made significant strides in the academic and professional spheres of my life, but at what cost? I had been motivated during all of those late-late-nights and too-early mornings by the fulfillment that these achievements would bring me. While they did make me happy, helped me better discern what I wanted for my future career-wise, and the affirmation it brought from others fueled my self-confidence greatly, it was hard to truly enjoy everything when my mental and physical health were so depleted. I’d also somewhat subconsciously traded in a lot of what had been socially-fulfilling for more of those material accomplishments (like choosing to pour my energy into winning contests and getting good grades instead of relaxing or catching up with my friends). But at some point along the way I had stopped asking for help and leaning on others, so I realized too late that those victories are not very special anymore if I couldn’t celebrate them with my support team.
Because I’d been fairly successful ahead-of-the-curve, if you will, I had always been prompted to keep going by comparing myself to others and by this voice in the back of my head always telling me that “it can only go up from here, you still have so much time left at college” etc. And it was effective. At least, it was effective in piling up external affirmations, but when I finally gave myself a little bit of time to reflect, I began to understand that those kind of achievements were not truly fulfilling me in the long-run. However, I do feel very grateful that slaving away for those past two years had given me a enough wiggle-room to pause and take a breath so that I could make those kind of observations when I did.
With all of this context in mind, I confirmed my application to study abroad in Cambridge. Remember that idealized dream I mentioned earlier? …Living independently in a small European city where I would wake up early without prompting and magically resolve all of my issues? My (unrealistic) list of goals went something like this:
- Stop procrastinating all of my assignments
- Write creatively on my own everyday
- Learn how to cook and eat healthily everyday
- Do yoga or workout everyday
- Go to church every week, maybe join a Bible study
- Get into a regular sleep pattern (i.e. stop staying up and waking up so late)
- “Make the most” of my time abroad
While all of those goals are good ones, most of them have this “all or nothing” mindset. One of the first topics we covered in my British Life & Culture class were some of the differences between American and British lifestyles (shocking, I know). The difference that’s been the most relevant and difficult for me to adjust to has been in realizing that America encourages extremely competitive atmospheres where we have been trained to believe that “failure is never an option.”
Now, I’ll agree that achieving all of these goals in a few months would be unrealistic for anyone (and I’ll agree that I’ve also had an issue in the past with romanticizing new situations and the magical affect that it could have on me). However, I do have one caveat: there is definitely something about the idea of “studying abroad” that promotes this kind of mindset. At least in my case, everyone I talked to who were either promoting it or who had been abroad themselves, shared different stories with similar themes of unprecedented self-growth and that was what truly made me want to go abroad.
Perhaps needless to say, I am 3⁄4 of the way done with my time abroad and I have not fully accomplished any of those goals. I have certainly been working on a lot of those goals but I have also failed, repeatedly, at a lot of them. Almost everyday I have to resist the urge to just cancel all of the goals completely and wallow in self-criticism. But, I am slowly learning how to both function and make mistakes.
This kind of reflection has directed me towards a lot of self-exploration and questioning: Why do I struggle so much to find internal motivation? Have I been using over-packed schedules as a crutch my whole life? Why is “trying my best” or even “trying at all” not enough for me to feel proud of what I have accomplished?
3 Things I’ve Learned Over the Past 3 Months:
- Failure is OK, half-way-done is OK, procrastination is OK (i.e. everything does not have to always be perfect).
- I was blaming my unwillingness to take control of my life on having a super busy schedule.
- There is no universally agreed-upon standard of “making the most” of my time abroad that I should be trying to meet. Everybody’s “most” will look different.
But I don’t want to come away from this experience with self-frustration and regret being the predominant themes just because I didn’t meet all of the unrealistic goals that I had set for myself. If my original intentions for these goals and for studying abroad in general was to grow, then I should challenge myself to work towards something that does not have an obvious, external destination or end-product.
I think I am learning that if I can set goals that will help me make “being present” my new habit, then I will certainly return home as someone who has grown and will continue to do so even once I’m back at Valpo.
3 (Realistic) Goals for My Last Month:
- Try not to compare my experience to those around me or to others who have studied abroad.
- Try to do one thing everyday that grounds me (e.g. going for a walk, journaling, Facetiming a friend or family from home).
- Try not to get too caught up in final papers and exams or future plans. Instead, focus on making memories and spending time with my new family of friends— I am sure I’ll be missing them all so much this summer.