Studying Abroad in a Pandemic: Thoughts a year later

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I moved into the dorms this year knowing that on that same day in 2020, I was moving to Oxford, England to study at Oxford. I can’t believe it has been a year. I have so many feelings about that, and as many more students are able to study abroad now (rather than just two students in fall 2020), I wanted to reflect.  

On one hand, going back to the familiarity of Lawrence in the fall is nice. I know what I am doing, I know people, and I only had to drive 10 minutes from home. It is strange, though, to know that I haven’t had a fall term here since my sophomore year, and now this is my last one. It’s strange to have this be such a busy, momentous term that is supposed to reflect linguistic achievement through my senior capstone project. I’m very stressed. 

But gosh, do I miss how Oxford made me feel. I think about flying solo across the Atlantic, learning about British history from Oxford scholars, watching rowing teams fly through the Thames from my quarantine room’s windows. It was never perfect, and I was very lonely, but there were so many amazing parts about studying there. I even think back to my two-week quarantine, filled with total isolation, with fondness and longing…because the ham/chip/butter sandwiches I ate for lunch were the epitome of European excitement, yeah?  

However, things were different there.. Though I was an enrolled student at Oxford, I also felt like I was a long-term tourist. I had amazing English tutorials on my tutor’s narrowboat on the Thames, where I learned a lot of valuable analytical skills and had great conversations. I often wrote mediocre essays but that was ok. I learned to like black tea with milk and how to be polite and how to write things that were more British than American. I worked as hard as I could, but on weekends I tried to book tours of the Oxford Castle and Prison or Ashmolean or Pitt Rivers Museum like I was a tourist to the city.  

You should know, if you don’t, that all I know about studying abroad is what the pandemic let me have. I only visited London twice and didn’t get to see Wales or Scotland or Ireland or the continent. I had a lockdown for the last month I was there. I didn’t feel safe going to pubs or restaurants, even if that was a way to make friends. There are quite a bit of missed opportunities weaved into my time abroad. And yes, I have a lot of regrets. I think that’s why this year’s mark means so much to me. I didn’t really process my time abroad. If you ever get to study abroad, please journal every day. I didn’t, and still don’t feel like I remember everything I did. Part of what I regret is that I didn’t get to have the same experience that people who studied before the pandemic got to have, or what they seem to be getting now in fall 2021. It’s hard to not be sad about that. But I keep on telling myself that I’ll get to go back someday and re-experience those things. I try to re-frame it in my head: I got to see a vastly different Oxford than what others might know/get to see! Or I remember the national lockdown! Or even, I visited Buckingham Palace while Prince Philip was still alive. 

Without a doubt, studying abroad is an amazing opportunity that many more of us might get to have as the world (hopefully) improves and things open up. But I don’t know if many people realize that it will not be perfect. Yes, it changed my life. I consider Oxford to be my second home. I enjoyed it there. But I needed to have a lot of flexibility and ask for a lot of support from my program. I needed to have weekly counseling. I often used Whatsapp to call home. I was lonely. I think the greatest thing studying abroad taught me, though, is how to make do with being alone all the time in a different country. 

I did a lot of things over there that I would have never done in Appleton. I walked 8+ miles in London with only a printed-out Google map of where I wanted to go. I jay-walked a lot and managed to get hit by a bike in front of a crowd (very embarrassing). I went to a lot of museums by myself and even went grocery shopping by myself. In writing this, I realize that it’s not glamorous (and I probably could have done all these things in the U.S), but it was a part of my Oxford experience.  

This is a much more personal article than I intended, but I’ll leave you all with more concrete thoughts. First, study abroad if you can. Second, you don’t just spend your time abroad doing Instagram-worthy things. It’s hard and sad and lonely and not always fun. But a big part of it is being independent and learning about yourself in a new country. Third, try not to compare your time abroad to others.’ Fourth, please keep a journal. Fifth, know that you will probably never stop thinking about this moment in your life, and know that wherever you’ll go, you’ll take parts of it home with you. I hope you can study abroad!