Study Abroad Struggles — and Why It’s All Worth It

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“Congratulations! You have been accepted to your study abroad program in [INSERT REALLY COOL LOCATION HERE] next semester with AIFS!”

Every student that has studied abroad with AIFS has received a letter with this life-changing sentence telling them that they’ve been accepted to go see a new place in the world. Usually, students are extremely excited after receiving this letter; I know I was! I know that I was ready to pack up my bags and go to the airport the second I saw I was accepted to study abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia… despite still having over half a semester to complete at my home university.

Studying abroad is exciting! You have this opportunity to uproot your life, pack your bags, travel the world, and open your mind to new cultures. While the experience is super exciting, it is important to realize not everything in your study abroad experience will be absolutely wonderful and filled with sunshine and rainbows. Not every moment will be perfect, but every moment will be an experience worth remembering. Things happen unexpectedly, plans change at the last minute, and not every situation is ideal. Often, these difficult moments, while not favorable in the moment, make for great stories and learning experiences.

Unfortunately, I became aware of this very early on in my study abroad experience. It was not five minutes after I stepped foot in the airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, bags in hand and the biggest smile on my face, that I encountered a major obstacle. I vividly remember walking into the airport, giddy and excited to fly across the world, telling myself, “I can’t believe this is really happening.” I walk up to the check-in desk, hand over my passport, and the assistant at the desk looks at me and says, “I’m sorry but you don’t have a ticket with us.” I was in disbelief and couldn’t understand. Despite having an e-ticket on my phone and all of the correct reference numbers, I kept getting turned away.

Eventually I was told that my flight was operated through a different airline. However, I was also told no representatives from that airline would be at the airport until 6 hours until after my flight was scheduled to leave… Needless to say, I was confused and starting to panic. After hours on hold and enough stress for an entire lifetime, I figured out my flight had been cancelled due to a winter storm traveling through Canada, and I had been assigned a seat on another flight. Then, when I finally arrived in London – the place you meet your AIFS cohort and spend two days prior to going St. Petersburg when doing a semester with AIFS in Russia – I accidentally took a $60.00 taxi to my hotel. At this point I was exhausted and all I wanted after a day and a half of traveling was to take a shower and freshen up. Needless to say, I dropped my toothpaste in the toilet… *sigh*

Just think, all of this happened before I even got to Russia! Since then, I have definitely had my stressful moments.

My first morning after moving into my homestay, I missed my bus to the university four times, making my usual 25-minute commute into an hour and 45 minutes. On top of it all, on the same day, I miscommunicated with my host mom about when I needed to be to the university, and she freaked out that I had missed two lessons!

When I traveled to Murmansk, the largest city in the northern circle, I left my camera in a taxi and didn’t notice until I was going through security in the airport. I managed to get it back within 30 minutes of the flight.

To add to the pile, this past weekend I took a day trip to another city with some friends. Our train was scheduled to leave the station at 6:15 AM. I ended up running late in the morning and, by that, I literally mean running. I had to run close to a mile from my apartment to the nearest metro station (Grazhdansky Prsopekt) and arrived to Ploshad’ Vostaniya at 6:07… eight minutes before my train was supposed to leave. I sprinted from the train in the metro and up the escalator. Now might be a good time to inform you that the metro in St. Petersburg is one of the deepest metros in the world; on average, it takes three minutes to travel up or down the escalator, so you can imagine how difficult it was to run up this escalator. I fell not once, not twice, not three times, and not even four, but five times as I desperately tried getting to my train. Out of breath, I reached my train with two minutes to spare…

It’s moments like these that drove me absolutely insane when they were happening, but I have been able to take something specific from each of them.

Sure, not every moment has been glossy or “perfect,” but I still wouldn’t trade any of these experiences for the world. It is in these moments that I’ve grown and become more grateful for this semester.

“Tolerance for Adversity and Uncertainty” – Sometimes traveling requires some acrobatics

In a backpacking course, I was once taught about the principle of Tolerance for Adversity and Uncertainty. This is the practice of being tolerant of any form of adversity in any situation where there might be uncertainty. This means you are adaptable and ready to handle any situation. I think is an important mentality to have when studying abroad.

Studying abroad is a wonderful experience, but it is important to understand that there will be difficult moments, frustrating situations, and times where you will have to improvise. Sometimes, things may not turn out “perfect,” it is important to be flexible, make the most of an opportunity, and take something from the experience and grow as a person.

“Pulling a Maria?”

During many of these difficult situations, I found myself asking the question, “what would Maria do in this situation?” Maria is a close friend of mine from back at home and is without a doubt one of the most positive people I know. I was fortunate enough to travel to South Africa with her last summer and she truly taught me to make the most of every situation.

Maria always encourages me to get out of my comfort zone, to try new things, and to smile as frequently as I can. Maria is one of the most curious people I know and would fearlessly talk with anyone about anything. In South Africa, she always encouraged me to talk to strangers, to learn their stories, and not be afraid of new opportunities.

During my study abroad experience in Russia, I’ve been trying to live by this mantra of “Pulling a Maria.” If you are studying abroad, or thinking about studying abroad, I encourage you to try and live by this mantra to. Go out! Explore! Don’t sit in your dorm, apartment, or homestay all day, watching Netflix! Talk to new people! Make new friends! Take full advantage of your time in the place you’re studying. I encourage you to pull a Maria and embrace your adventurous side.

This is your semester abroad. How will you choose to spend it?

This post was contributed by Dmitry Tereshenko, a student from the University of North Carolina – Charlotte who has spent his spring semester studying abroad with AIFS in St. Petersburg, Russia.

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