Studying abroad: do I stay or do I go?

British blogger Joe Peck was aware that studying abroad would pose some challenges. But he was unprepared for the sense of unsettlement it produced

January 16 2019
Studying abroad: Do I stay or do I go?

When I started studying at Yale University in August 2017, I thought I knew what to expect. Fooled by a common language, I was unaware of the subtle but abundant cultural differences that awaited me in the United States.

For the first few months, my studies took a back seat to the more demanding task of navigating the culture. Faux pas, such as asking for the toilet rather than the restroom, took a while to get away from. There isn’t a concise list or cheat sheet of things to remember. It all had to be learned the hard way. 

Sixteen months later, having survived the transition process, I now ask for the restroom without hesitation. Apart from the occasional comment on my accent or question about life across the pond, I’m not always conscious that I am abroad. But the difficulties of studying abroad reveal themselves in a new ways. As time goes on, new, and arguably more consequential, problems arise. I am no longer worrying about which way to spell “colour”, but trying to grapple with an ever-changing identity, increasingly unsure of where my home is and where my future lies.

A lot has changed in a year. Last December, shortly before my first trip back to the UK, I could think of little else but going home. Amid increasing homesickness, I thought longingly about eating mince pies and singing along to the Pogues: two traditions that my American counterparts are sadly deprived of.

Then, shortly before the end of my finals, one of my professors hampered my mood. Instead of saying something like “Oh yes, it will be good for you to see your friends”, as almost everybody else had done, he hesitated. After a second he said “It’s difficult, because every time you go home you realise that your social centre is changing”.

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I didn’t think much more of that warning until I went home to the UK for Christmas. Sure, just as I had done last year I sang my heart out to the Pogues and ate more than is recommended. But the three-week Christmas break is no substitute for four months of separation. As much as I wish it weren’t true, having a growing number of friends and opportunities in another country created a unique set of problems. I can’t talk to old schoolmates about classes the way that I did when we were taking the same exams, nor can I relate to my dad the complexities of American culture when he hasn’t visited in 20 years.

Not only is my social circle split by an ocean, but the majority of opportunities available are all Stateside. Until recently, I was certain that I wanted to return to the UK after graduating. But, with every US-based internship offered to me and every UK-based internship that never materialises, I struggle to see how I could navigate a career path at home.

Every year, in anticipation of the unique, four-month summer that US universities provide, Yale publishes a vast list of internship opportunities available to its students. Unfortunately, opportunities are rarely available outside the US. The comforts of home and the opportunities of America are mutually exclusive, and I am finding it increasingly hard to reconcile the two.

I am extremely lucky to have so many opportunities, but I can’t help feeling torn between my two different worlds. If the internships available to me now are American, it’s likely that the jobs available to me in five years will be too. And where will all my friends be? What if, by that point, the majority of my US friends are living in New York, while my friends in England have all abandoned Plymouth.

This is mostly based on a feeling, a sneaking suspicion that the longer I spend in the United States, the more tempted I will be to stay after I graduate. At the moment, the chances of that happening are slim. But with each passing year, the underlying worry that home is not where it once was becomes more dominant. 

As I look back at the difference between this Christmas break and the last, I can see how the problems of studying abroad have evolved. Unlike the teething problems associated with adapting to the culture, the difficulty of studying 4,000 miles from home for an extended period of time is harder to remedy. I can only hope that the feeling of separation doesn’t grow and that next year I will return to Plymouth and spend time with my wonderful family and friends without worrying whether I’ve become a tourist in the city I once called home.

Read more: How to deal with homesickness at university

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