The Reality of Returning From Abroad

By Rile O'connell

Just over a month ago, I returned from a semester abroad in Rome, Italy — three and a half months in which I saw parts of seven countries, including the homelands of both sides of my family (Italy and Ireland); studied writing, art, and Italy’s language and food history; and made improvements in my methods of self-care. I visited friends studying in other countries and was visited by members of my own family on two separate occasions. Overall, it was an unforgettable semester. That said, I couldn’t wait to return home.

I’ve always been comfortable putting myself into situations where I don’t know people, but I don’t feel that I fully considered or was advised on how different (and stressful) being “alone” in another country would be. The public transportation, the language, the customs, and the people were all new to me — and a large part of the latter were from the same American university, which made room for cliques, something I haven’t had to deal with much since high school. To top it all off, my roommate never spoke to me — another phenomenon I have never dealt with at Santa Clara, as I have always lived and surrounded myself with friends.

So I spent a lot of time on my own, which was at first overwhelming, but soon became comforting. The silence provided me with opportunities to reflect on and better take care of myself. I worked out every other day, journaled and read for my own enjoyment, was proactive with my assignments, and once I was comfortable with the metro and bus systems, explored the surrounding Roman neighborhoods without the pressure of other people. While in Dublin with a friend from high school, I took a day to myself to explore local writers’ museums and everything O’Connell-related in the city of my ancestors.

And then I came back to school to start Winter quarter of my junior year living with my best friends in the Villas, and I was ecstatic, having not seen them in seven months. SCU had reminded me of the adjustment period inherent in returning to your home country, but I ignored it. What would I need to readjust to that my friends couldn’t help with?

Well, a lot.

My first week of class gave me more assignments than the first month abroad, and I had my first in-person meeting with The Review for my job, started planning this quarter’s Bronco Slam&Jam, and am still applying for summer jobs, all while living with five other girls who not only talk to me (unlike my roommate abroad) but are continually near and with me. This was what I wanted for months: to be back on the same time zone and campus as my friends, a short distance from family, and into a familiar routine doing what I love.

But it is also very stressful. The quiet, personal time I had so frequently abroad isn’t as accessible anymore when constantly stimulated by friends, work, and going out. I’m having to learn and communicate house rules with not just one but five people. And while I don’t wish for the uncertainty of not-so-foreign countries, I, as we all do, need space and time for self-care, which I’m finding in small increments through cooking, walks around campus, to-do lists, and yoga and other guided meditations. Thankfully my roommates are not only aware of my anxiety (both existing and new) but actively helping me recognize and do what’s best for me.

The study abroad process didn’t end when I returned to America; I know I have to give myself time to readjust to a more fast-paced campus life and to living with five times the people I’m used to. And for those looking into going abroad, it doesn’t have to be “the best semester of your life,” and you don’t have to make “lifelong friends” (two things promised to me by every person I spoke to prior to going to Italy). It’s your experience, and I urge you to do what’s best for you, not just what was best for other people. And in daily life, too, everyone: take care of yourself — not just during times of transition but all the time.