I knew during my senior year of high school that in college I would want to study abroad. I remember making the final decision on the exact location and program my freshman year at the University of Michigan after a heartbreak. I am pretty sure my immature thought process was that this would elicit some sort of longing on his part. He would see me traveling and “living my best life” and eventually come crawling right back. My mother leaped at the idea of me starting the process with the Center for Global and International Study, always reflecting upon her regrets of not being able to participate in international travel as an undergraduate student.
“No one ever told me about that kind of stuff,” she said, impressed by CGIS being such an accessible and advertised resource on campus — a contrast to what she had experienced during her college years.
It was a few days before Christmas when I found out I had been accepted into the “Contemporary London” program for the upcoming spring term. By this point in time, the heartbreaker had come crawling back prematurely, ruining my foolproof plan of making him jealous with an aesthetically pleasing Instagram page of worldly travels. I had become overwhelmed in an attempt to find my place on campus. I didn’t have many friends, let alone know anyone else who would be studying abroad as a freshman. Needless to say, I panicked. I was going to be alone, for the first time ever, on an entirely different side of the planet for seven weeks. As my departure neared, I had the ugliest meltdown, expressing my fears and anxiety to my mother, who said something along the lines of, “I already bought the plane ticket. You’re going.”
The eight-hour flight from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to London’s Heathrow Airport was probably the most nervous I had been in my entire life. However, I found solace in the sweet older woman who was watching “Finding Nemo” in the seat next to me. Once we landed, I was immediately lost, even after going through the map of the airport with my father the night before, highlighting all of the checkpoints, customs and where I would eventually meet the rest of the group.
The pit stains in my grey Michigan hoodie I had worn as an identifier were growing more prominent by the minute. The humidity had made my hair frizz and I knew my morning breath had to be something vicious.
This may seem pointless to you. Why is she telling me about looking like a hot mess? Crying? Or feeling lost and alone? I say this because each and every part of it will be a part of studying abroad. You will feel alone, anxious, confused and things will come at you quickly. You may even have a meltdown or two, during which you probably won’t look your best. You learn to adapt, you grow, you experience, you challenge yourself to try new things and you jump at opportunities you may have never before. You see. You explore. You taste and you listen. Surprise yourself — you often don’t realize how easy and enjoyable it can be to delve into something outside of your comfort zone.
I often look back on what my mother told me in her excitement of my decision to study abroad, “No one ever told me about that kind of stuff.” So, I take this opportunity to tell everyone about this kind of stuff.
I graduated from Michigan in April. I am writing this now at the kitchen table in my surprisingly spacious but studio apartment in the Fenway-Kenmore area of Boston, just adjacent to Boston University where I have started graduate school. I can say with ease that I am comfortable here, in this old studio apartment, by myself, away from everything that I know and the ones I care about most (the same heartbreaker stuck around this time) because of my study abroad experience.
Quite frankly, it taught me how to grow up and become comfortable with my independence. Upon completion of a Master of Fine Arts degree, Boston University provides fellowships for graduates to participate in global travel — receiving funding after they select anywhere on the globe they choose to spend time after graduation. I know that I can do this, I know that I want to do this and I know that I will do this because of the foundation my prior experience abroad built. The difference between then and now is that now I know exactly what no one ever tells you.
Stephanie Mullings graduated in 2018.
To search for education abroad opportunities and register your travel visit global.umich.edu.