Miley Cyrus hopped off the plane in LAX and I hopped off at Philadelphia International Airport. Less glamorous, more nerve-wracking, but equally as surreal, I’m sure.
Everyone enters into their year abroad nervous, not knowing what to expect, but somehow hoping for the best year of their lives.
The stories of previous years, encouraged us to enter foreign lands with eyes wide and ears readied for bizarre tongues and mocking accents. Needless to say, the nerves were strong, but the excitement stronger as I hopped off that plane ready and very naive.
It stands in my mind that not every experience can be a good one, not every adventure will end in treasure, and not every city will serve you with a smile. Philadelphia – whilst holding a huge place in my heart – certainly did not serve me with a smile.
Temple University pushed me into the harsh streets of North Philadelphia and my international status left me plopped in the middle of upperclassmen (the final two years of college) dorms. Socialising was difficult; people didn’t know what to do with my accent and only wanted to hear about life in London. I’m not from London, and this was perhaps my biggest burden living State side. I felt alienated and lost for much of my time in Philadelphia, finding it hard to belong in a place that seemed to envelop everything it came into contact with.
Although I had some incredible moments at Temple (I joined Alpha Epsilon Phi sorority – the best decision I made during my year abroad) the best year of my life that I had been promised fell flat on the floor and got swept up amongst the rats and trash of north Philadelphia.
Being held at gunpoint, witnessing shootings and campus lock downs were amongst a few of the nightmares that greeted me. It hadn’t gone to plan. But deviation from a plan isn’t always negative. I learnt more going through a rough time a thousand miles from home than I did having the time of my life a couple miles from home in Norwich.
Struggling in Philly let me understand that not every decision is the right decision, that privilege is knowing everything will go to plan, but reality is understanding it probably won’t. Whilst I was sat in my shared room, yearning for the comfort of UEA, I was ignoring the world of independence outside my window.
It’s true that an experience not shared is an experience halved but an experience halved is still more than nothing at all. It’s easy to blame everyone else for your own wallowing, to let things go from not quite as I planned to I’ll just sit in bed until it’s the end of the semester, but for anyone struggling against the expectation of abroad know that a place is only what you make it. There can be harder cities, harder environments but unless you pick yourself out of the gutter, force yourself to have champagne brunch with your idiotic roommate or go for a sweaty, uncomfortable run until you find that weird graffiti pier you’d seen on Instagram once, you’ll forever be at the burden of expectations created by those who came before you.
Admittedly my year abroad wasn’t the time of my life everyone told me it would be, but it was perhaps the most valuable year of my life. I learnt to pick myself up, to understand who wasn’t worth my friendship and to explore only for myself, not for the best Instagram picture.