Image caption: Bamboo rafts in Yangshuo, China, 2018 | Photo courtesy of Jasmine Ioi
Studying abroad can be daunting, full of firsts for anyone: first time on an airplane, first time leaving the country or first time packing for more than a month away from home. For me, it was my first time leaving the bubble of my home, my family, my friends and everything I’ve ever known for more than a couple weeks.
A lot of American college students, at the very least, are “sent off” for a semester at a time; my big brother got a big send-off when he left for school in Indiana, but me leaving for Boulder was a little different. I’ve more or less lived my entire life about an hour away from here—my big college “send-off” was my dad dropping me and all of my things off at Baker Hall before he went to work for the day in Denver. As a result, I think my own experience of really, truly being physically separated from my home was put off until I left Boulder to spend a semester in Shanghai, China.
I didn’t even know what kind of emotional impact to brace myself for until I was already there. The whirlwind of submitting program applications, applying for a student visa, booking plane tickets, finding housing, packing, flying to Los Angeles, flying from LA across the Pacific and finally ending up on the ground in a wildly different place had a way of prioritizing itself over any feelings I may have had about it.
Those emotions might hit you all at once when you wake up at 3 a.m. local time due to jetlag. My most vivid memory of the first week in Shanghai is waking up in shock at my host family’s apartment thinking, “Oh no. I may have made a mistake.”
Don’t worry. I didn’t feel that way for long. In fact, I survived long enough to make it back to the states and write a retrospective paper on the experience two years later. I had an amazing time, and, once the shock wore off, I even worked up the nerve to travel outside of the big city and see what else China had to offer; the furthest afield I made it was the Giant Buddha statue in Leshan, just outside of Chengdu, for the Tomb Sweeping holiday weekend.
My point in writing about the abject horror one may have at the realization you have left home for the other side of the world is that the terror will be short-lived, and the experiences you carry away will last forever. I learned so much about myself and my capability to overcome fear of the unknown. I’m actually planning on returning to China next year for grad school.
None of the doors I now have open to me would exist if I had not taken that initial leap of faith and stuck it out long enough to realize: Different isn’t the same as bad. Studying abroad may entail a myriad of fears, but overcoming those fears will open you to a world you never knew existed.
Author Meredith Lewis graduated in May 2020 with a degree in molecular, cellular and developmental biology. She also worked in the Education Abroad office as a marketing intern.