My year abroad made me powerful

Emily Radford
May 30, 2018

From my experiences this year abroad, I’ve become critical of the way study abroad is portrayed. It seems full of fluff, an experience that is too good to be true. In fact, my high expectations for Amsterdam lead me to be dismayed at points. I’d expected challenges in Ecuador, yet Europe seemed like a different story. An adventure full of happiness and fun 24/7. It hasn’t been, just as life isn’t a continual stream of positivity. My below post is an attempt to expose this unfair standard we hold to those who study abroad. It’s raw, it’s emotional, and it’s reality.


I left the United States to escape.

It’s the sort of realization that comes retrospectively. My urge to escape peaked in 2016, as my friends and I watched in shock as the United States became dotted with more red than blue. Our champagne glasses paused, mid sip, as we watched the celebration we’d orchestrated to celebrate the first female president slip into a funeral for the America we had hoped for. I needed out. I was already weighed down by the immense expectations I held for my university GPA, a fractured family that I knew deep down I couldn’t fix, and the seasonal depression and continual anxiety made worse by multiple feet of Rochester snow and gusts of wind that could knock a grown man to the ground.

So I left.

First Ecuador, then Amsterdam. I thought that indulging myself in the Spanish language and then in a queer utopia would make for a fantastical year abroad, full of feelings of belonging and the lessoning of this need to leave, run, sprint away and never look back.

Yet this need to escape didn’t evaporate with each new address. Sometimes it grew, as catcalling shrunk my ego and loneliness was my best company. Other times it wavered though. Thrown off by a grueling 8-hour hike in an active volcanic crater that left my legs shaking, and my body so fulfilled that food seemed an irrelevant nutrient. It was dulled by the warm embrace of a friend, forgotten with open arms and head thrown back in laughter. Escaping helped me to rejoice in the pure humanity of sharing a bus seat with a stranger. Bating life goals and inspirations and heartbreak for the 3-hour ride, releasing burdens with connection.

My story of being abroad isn’t just one of escape though. It’s not just a story of being financially independent. Nor one of mental illness or the innate desire to leave a place where home is a word without meaning. This story is one of the power I’ve felt in embracing that which terrifies me. I have navigated a Latin American country without Google maps. I’ve trusted total strangers with secrets and kept my fair share in return, weaving acquaintances into friendships. I’ve spent days traveling by myself, and felt remarkable joy in doing so. My greatest fulfillment is that I looked at this year abroad, at all the unknown and anxiety and differences. And I got on that first plane. Since then I’ve been on more planes than I have fingers, but none more valiant than the first. These two vastly amazing cities I’ve had the honor to call home have been indescribable. They’ve simultaneously been atrocious places of despair while also full of elation and self-love. Amsterdam and Quito, you are my home, my web of mixed feelings, and the proof of my growth.

As I think to my next few months home, and my next year in Rochester, I’m utterly terrified. The streets that I’ve spent my life driving through feel foreign. Maybe it’s the meager year left I have at university, as the rest of my life lies stealthily beyond that deadline, ready to pounce. Perhaps the problems that I left the States to avoid will come railing back at full force the second my plane’s wheels screech to a bitter stop on the scared asphalt. Or possibly the 140 characters that resemble those of an immature teenager, validated by a vote and a seat in the oval office, seem too immense a force in my effort to fight back, to fight for the rights of those who’ve had theirs stolen, invalidated, erased.

Something about the US seems foreign to me.

Despite this reoccurring sensation of unease, I’m left with this undeniable beauty that at one point, I had this exact same feeling about coming abroad. The purpose of going abroad isn’t for the Instagram posts. Nor for the days filled with ease, sunshine, waves, and already made friends. For me, it was about the fear that motivated my escape. To face this fear, to get on a plane by yourself and come home with friends and memories, both good and bad. That was an expectation I never realized I should hold. That just the act of facing my fears could be the reason for my study abroad seemed unfathomable. But it was. But it’s this action, this bravery and power I’ve felt in placing myself continuously in situations I don’t know, that is my greatest feat. Because as the waves of reverse culture shock hit me already, I feel fearful yet willing.

This is accompanied by the slight twinge of excitement that comes with going home. The vast expanse of land that I’ve yet to delve into seems intimidating yet beckoning. Somehow, I’ve been to most European countries yet have barely skimmed the US states. I’m keen to take the US on as my next exploration, driving my dinky 2002 Subaru to the endless array of national parks. Reconnecting with loved ones, university friends, connections from abroad. I’m impatiently waiting for the array of marches, protests, and parades that I can partake in. The regained sensation that because I’m a resident in the US, it is my duty to fight for change.

Terrified or not, I’ll get on my final plane routed for Boston. And as history is the greatest predictor of the future, I will be ok.

Scratch that, I will be more than ok. I will be powerful. 

Emily Radford

<p>I’m studying psychology and gender studies at the University of Rochester. I just came back from studying in Quito, Ecuador for a semester and this spring semester I will be studying in Amsterdam, Netherlands. I feel most at home when I’m backpacking and climbing mountains, I’m a lover of pancakes and language, and I’m skilled at sleeping on all forms of public transport.</p>

Home University:
University of Rochester
Londonderry, NH
Gender Studies
Explore Blogs