My time studying abroad, although it was cut short, helped me discover parts of myself that I did not know existed or had forgotten about. While I had not traveled much prior to my time overseas, I always felt a calling to visit new places and see the world. I knew I wanted London as my study abroad destination because it would allow me to more affordably visit several other surrounding countries. Unfortunately, three out of six of my fully planned trips were cancelled due to COVID-19. I never got to visit the places I was most excited to explore: Morocco, Cyprus, and Egypt. This was an extremely disappointing and heartbreaking loss in the midst of the chaotic pandemic. The realization that these trips—dreams—were cancelled, coupled with my sudden re-entry to the United States, made it almost impossible to cope and adjust initially. However, after taking time to grieve my losses and reflect upon my time abroad, I am able to appreciate how much growth and perspective I gained from my time in Western Europe.
When I first landed in London ready to embark on a six-month international journey, I had expected and hoped to be completely out of my element. Instead, I was met with what felt like New York City with British accents. Of course, London was beautiful and chaotic in the best ways, but it just was not what I wanted... and I could not put my finger on exactly why. After a few weeks, I realized that despite being thousands of miles away, across the world and on a different continent, I felt too close to home. I wanted something completely different for and from my study abroad experience. I sought that sense of culture shock that all my classmates and advisors warned would shake me once I moved to a new country. Yet, London just felt familiar and, often, lonely. It had everything America had—except my loved ones and the comforts of home that I appreciate the most. I began journaling for the first time in my life. This self-care practice helped tremendously and made me feel like someone was listening to all the thoughts I refused to say aloud.
Fast forwarding through my time abroad: I traveled to Paris and hated it, then to Rome and Madrid and fell in love. While Paris felt like another tourist-filled version of London, Rome and Madrid were completely different. I could sense the culture in the art, architecture, food, and daily interactions in a way that was unique from what I had experienced in London. As someone who is half-Italian, I felt connected to my roots in a profoundly new way. It was mind-blowing that I had the opportunity to visit the country that my grandparents were born in. Growing up poor in South Philadelphia, I never considered that I might step foot on my family’s land of origin. It was a surreal, enriching experience: This seemingly foreign place, culture, and language belonged to my family and ancestors. Although my mother’s family is from Sicily, just being in Rome left me hungry for more exploration. After my time there and in Madrid, I craved different experiences, places that felt unique from where I have spent my entire life. I wanted to meet people different from me, experience new cultures, and be challenged by unfamiliar and uncomfortable environments. I knew that I would never grow if I only visited places that remind me of major cities in the United States. With this newfound wanderlust, I became extremely excited for my time in Rabat, Larnaca, and Cairo.
But it never came. I vented about this in my journal, comforted yet again by the warm presence I noticed when I divulged my concerns and sought guidance from what was just a book.
Once my study abroad program got cancelled, I relied on my journal as a sense of support and comfort more than ever. And then my physical journal got damaged beyond use in the move back overseas. I began to write handwritten letters on lined-paper, starting each with “Dear…”. I was unsure who I was addressing, but I knew it was to someone, or something. This practice came naturally, and I found it particularly interesting that I knew I needed to address my notes. I spent time reflecting on this, examining why I was compelled to address my journal entries, and eventually realized it was never about the book at all. My journaling, my experiences abroad, and my time alone in new countries helped me reconnect with my spirituality. I was confiding in my religious support system through my journal, engaging in a form of prayer in my own, non-traditional way. I felt comfort, security, a presence, and a listening ear because these things were there in my time of need. Since then, I have been able to express my spirituality more outwardly, and it has guided me through even more challenging times. Overall, my time abroad was not perfect or even ideal, but it was life-changing and I would not alter it for the world.