Lesson 1: The Art of Not Having a Clue

Sammie Stagg
January 11, 2020

I’m writing this in frozen, blustery Minnesota, where the snow is piled so high that when the streets are plowed, the mailboxes poke out of snow piles like gopher heads. I don’t think I’ve truly felt warm in months, except for the other day when I got too close to the fireplace and lightly broiled my back. 

I’ve got 1.5 months before I’ll be in Santiago, Chile for a long while. When I ruminate on this, and check how I feel, the prevailing emotion is surprisingly kind of blank. It mostly feels like I’ve been told this legend that I’ll go to South America but the jury’s still out on whether or not I believe it. 

There are two primary reasons why this doesn’t feel very real. First: up until recently, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to go abroad, so I didn’t spend time getting my hopes up thinking about it. Fall semester with its accompanying themes was a full-time job in itself, so there wasn’t much time for daydreaming about going abroad. 

Second: this doesn’t feel real because I can’t picture it. Usually, I prepare for the next chapter of life by visualizing myself in the new environment, or the new role. The summer before I went off to college, I would visualize doing things like brushing my teeth in a residence hall bathroom, taking notes in my microbiome class, unearthing friends across campus, etc. And it was the specificity of this daydream that got me eager to arrive. I’d been on campus already, and from a lifetime of preparation, I’d gained some sense (both right and wrong) of what college would be like, so I had something to visualize. But I can’t picture Chile the same way, because it’s an entirely new country and I simply have no idea what’s going to greet me. 

So I’m having trouble fixing myself into the role of “one who lives and studies in Chile.” When I try to play a mental image of what’s going to happen, my mind’s eye instead spits out a backdrop of TV static with the shrugging emoticon from the days of the slide keyboard. It’s a little frustrating.  

But I think I’m alright with this, because up to now, the best parts of life have been so markedly different from anything I’d pictured. I’ve prepared for my most treasured experiences by thinking, it would be wonderful if A happened, alright if B happened, and terrible if C happened. I imagine A, B, and C and marvel at how many possibilities there are, and then what ends up actually happening is Z -- light years away from anything I’d pictured but somehow better than all of it. This repeat experience has made me come to welcome uncertainty, and even to value it. Not being able to see the future clearly reminds me that somewhere out of sight, there is a Z. 

I’ll do what I need to to arrive in Santiago prepared. I’m learning more about Chile’s history and present, because I don’t like going somewhere new without first doing some research. And I’ve begun watching shows in Spanish and brushing up on verb conjugations. But when it comes to my individual role as a student abroad, as with everything, I think there’s a balance to be achieved when preparing. It’s important to learn logistics, behavioral norms and how to operate safely and respectfully in an unfamiliar environment. But I think if I scrutinized every last Santiago blog, researched all the best places to go for coffee and food, and Googled all my questions of, “what’s this like?”, I’d end up trying to emulate other experiences rather than carving out my own. I like mystery, and I’ve grown comfortable with the whole not knowing thing. This time around, I don’t think I need to picture it to get excited-- I’ve been ready for a while to do the kind of growing that can only happen if you’re thrown into a context which you know nothing about. 


Sammie Stagg

<p>I'm from small-town Minnesota and in my third year at Grinnell College, where I'm independently majoring in Health Science Writing. I enjoy drinking tea, cooking, swing dancing and signing ASL. I also read a lot of books and entertain myself with little things like research projects and scavenger hunts. I chose to study abroad in Santiago, Chile -&nbsp;a city of over 5 million - because my top two priorities were (1) to live someplace I could speak Spanish all the time, and (2) to live in a way that's significantly different from what I already know.</p>

2020 Spring
Home University:
Grinnell College
Carver, MN
Creative Writing
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