The Ugly Side of My Semester Abroad
In May 2015, I reluctantly returned home to New Jersey after spending a semester abroad in Dublin. I eagerly told anyone who would listen about how much I’d loved my time there and that I planned on returning to Ireland after graduation. In my tiny hometown, even strangers welcomed me back and asked me about Ireland. I felt like the local poster child for the perfect study abroad experience. In reality, my experience had been far from perfect. Imagine my family’s surprise when I finally admitted that I had cried every day for a week straight when I arrived, and started impatiently counting down the days until my return flight just 48 hours after landing in the Dublin airport.
I had dreamed about studying abroad since high school. During my freshman, my college began an exchange program with University College Dublin, and I decided that I wanted to spend the spring semester of my junior year there with my good friends Robin and Tessa. Everyone who returned from the program raved about how amazing the city was, and encouraged me and my friends to go. It seemed like other study abroad students had no problem settling in, and I figured I would adapt just as easily.
But from the moment I stepped off the plane, things didn’t go as planned. I dragged my jet-lagged body through the terminal and waited for half an hour at a baggage claim for a flight from Chicago before realizing that the luggage I had checked in at JFK wouldn’t be there. After arriving at our new apartment, I struggled to figure out how to turn on the hot water, before giving up and standing under the freezing spray for five minutes. I passed out at 7:30, only to wake up at 4am because a group of drunk German students had congregated beneath my window, where they proceeded to sit and talk for another two hours. When I noticed an “I miss you!” text from my very long-distance boyfriend, the waterworks began.
With each day that passed without much improvement, I felt even more defeated. I couldn’t find my way around on my own, I was surviving on a diet of instant noodles, and it seemed like every time I stepped outside, I got caught in the freezing Irish rain. I hated talking in class because I stood out with my American accent. And being in a long-distance relationship with a five-hour time difference was a much bigger challenge than I had anticipated.
Now I understand that people grow in the small, cramped spaces between grand moments: patiently figuring out a train timetable, running breathless to a bus station, sleeping on airport floors when flights are delayed
I hid my sadness from my family and friends at home when they asked how things were going because I didn’t want to admit that I was struggling to find my place in Dublin. Why couldn’t I appreciate this amazing opportunity? Why hadn’t I made new friends? I had been looking forward to this for years–why was I wasting my time feeling miserable? Before I had left the US I had felt independent and bold, ready to take on the challenge. In Dublin, I just felt pathetic and scared.
Eventually, I realized I needed to fully immerse myself in the city, to try anything and everything, to get out of my apartment for any reason possible. I figured that staying busy couldn’t hurt: at the very least, it would make the days pass a little quicker and keep me distracted from my homesickness.
As that countdown to my flight home retreated from the forefront of my mind, so did my desire to leave Ireland. In fact, I began dreading the day that the countdown reached zero. For a while, I felt like I would never find a niche at University College Dublin, but to my surprise, I received a warm welcome into the trampoline club. I began making friends both in and out of the club, and the more time I spent exploring the city, the more it felt like home. Although I grew to hate Guinness, I grew to love Dublin. I loved the musicians serenading passersby on Grafton Street. I loved lying on the grass in St. Stephen’s Green on sunny spring days. I loved indulging in Butler’s chocolates whenever I had a craving.
If living overseas was easy, I would never have truly gained anything by going to Ireland.
On my first weekend in Dublin, I crossed the famous Ha’penny Bridge that connects the north and south sides of the city. People had hung love locks on the railing. Most had names and anniversary dates on them, but I noticed a shiny gold lock with a quotation scrawled across it: “To the brightest of smiles and darkest of times.” I snapped a picture, intrigued by the message, and wondered what it really meant. Months later, I began to understand.
If living overseas was easy, I would never have truly gained anything by going to Ireland. Now I understand that people grow in the small, cramped spaces between grand moments: patiently figuring out a train timetable, running breathless to a bus station, sleeping on airport floors when flights are delayed, laying awake while strangers in a hostel snore incessantly, staring hopelessly at a map of a foreign city. After all of this, we learn to take a deep breath, to push forward, to find our way-through the brightest of smiles and darkest of times.
The Ugly Side of My Semester Abroad