UMD student learns life lessons from study abroad program

By Kristen Krebs

"I left."

This isn’t what I would say if you asked, “How was studying abroad?” as so many have, but it is true.

Six weeks into the 18-week program I withdrew.

But I wouldn’t tell you that... at least not upfront. If you asked, I would probably smile and tell you, “It was good. I learned a lot.” Although, this is also true.

It has been just over a year since I found myself in a place that I did not belong. Until now I have been hesitant to bear the complete truth about my experience. I have been too embarrassed to talk. I have not yet faced what I have done. So here I go. Or, do I mean went?

It was just about the time that I started to think I could navigate the halls of the University of Minnesota Duluth with my eyes closed that I decided to go international with my education. At that time, and still now, studying abroad seem like such buzzwords on college campuses. Something that people just do.  So when two friends suggested while we ate dinner one night that we try it together, I made it a mission. Those two friends ultimately decided not to go but their decisions had little effect on the ones I went on to make.

I thought, “I’ll do it.”

The presupposition of that sentence indicates that I am or was at one point able.  As I would come to learn, presupposition was clouded by my tendency to think I can do anything. I take on more commitments than, I would say, an average college student. The semester before I left for England I was taking 18 credits, working 12 hours a week on campus, and writing for the student newspaper. The point that I’m trying to make here is that, of course I thought I could study abroad. I could not imagine anything that would stand in my way. View Larger Map

UMD coordinates some study abroad programs but students also have the option of seeking out non-UMD programs.  This route is a little unorthodox and despite the smaller amount of support offered on-campus for such programs, students still choose this route when it means a cheaper price or a better fit. I chose a non-UMD program in Brighton, England- a coastal city just south of London with a reputation for art and entertainment.

So, off I went, to conquer what I had made my next assignment in my undergraduate career.

"I stepped onto foreign soil for the first time when I arrived at Heathrow airport in London on Jan. 29, 2009."

I traveled from London to Brighton by bus. A two hour ride. The weather that day was exactly what you might suppose England feels like. Cloudy, cold, and the threat of rain at any second.  I later learned that Janelle, a girl from Oklahoma in the same program as me, had taken the same bus ride just hours after I did. In a blog that she maintained for her friends and family, Janelle wrote about the beauty of the landscape on the ride:

“The first impression I had was green. The land surrounding the highway was a wet, lush, verdant blanket of rolling hills and pastures…The hills rolled past and revealed large houses, which, if I were a more mundane person, I would describe as “quaint”. I loved them, not just for the older architecture or the latticed windowpanes, but the distinctly comfortable, lived-in feeling I got by watching them flick by.”

I didn’t see what she saw. My ride may have been on the same bus and on the same route as Janelle but our rides were completely subjective. She clearly enjoyed her view. I was distracted by the hole in my stomach; the kind where you could not imagine ever having any desire to eat again. Somewhere along the way I had been prepped for this. Culture shock, right? Could it really happen this fast?

I arrived on the campus where my living arrangements had been set. As I walked to Flat #20 on a brick sidewalk the sound of the wheels on my rolling suitcase tripping over each crack played my entrance music. I opened the front door with my new house key and found myself in my kitchen. By this time it was noon and Min Young, my South Korean flat mate who would later become a very close friend, was eating her breakfast. Before I said anything to her I took a deep breath and thought to myself, “This is it.”

Recently Min Young told me in a Skype conversation, “At the first time I saw you, you just did look nervous just like anybody you know. You were just as nervous as others at first. And I just thought it just because you just came to the dorm and we all thought that you were adjusting really well. And that you would really enjoy the experience as much as we did. And love the plan in Brighton. And actually you didn’t love it as much as others, right?”

“Right,” I thought.

"The feelings that I had on the bus ride to Brighton, the stomach ache, the anxiousness and the hole never left me."

On Jan. 31, three days after my passport was stamped for the first time, I sat in my bedroom with my suitcase tucked under my bed and its contents placed in their respective places throughout my new home and wrote this:

The culture shock is wearing away each day. I felt physically sick immediately when I got here…I’m trying to be very patient with myself and remember that I am not alone. I can do this…Min Young and Lucy helped me get through the first night. I only cried a little bit. Min Young gave me a Korean charm and Lucy made me English tea…My stomach feels better today. I hope it does every day or I won’t be eating.

"The days that followed this entry seemed to have blended together in my head making each one indistinguishable from the next."

February 4, 2009 I was in a daze at orientation today. I hope this is all still part of culture shock. I need to give myself more time to adjust. I am trying to think about the dozens of people that I know who have studies abroad and everyone who has made it through….Natalie, Kelly, Jake, Kelsey, Gustaf, Ashtin.

I began to worry about the amount of time that had passed and the gap between how I felt and what I thought I should have been feeling. I am well aware that it takes a brave person to study abroad. Someone who is willing to leave what they know to discover something unfamiliar. Doing that seems to almost always yield desirable results.

The people I listed in my journal entry above who studied abroad told me how much they loved their experiences. Each one of these people would say that studying abroad is the event that they are most proud of, that sticks out the most on their resume and that is the most memorable life experience.  I was frustrated with myself. I wanted all those things but apparently I did not want to study abroad. I confided in Min Young.

“When you come to me and ask and tell your story and how you feel. It was just like I could understand that because people there are quite different from you. You like more regular schedule and more moral something. They actually act more like a child. It was kind of hard to let you settle that problem with yourself to overcome all the things. It didn’t like make me feel bad about talking to you and having a time with you was really nice. I felt bad about you because it was so better of you to overcome your feelings,” she said.

February 26, 2009 I’ve been here for a month today! It’s so weird for me to think about what I’ve done here in a month. Part of me feels like I’ve done so much and part of me feels like I am still unpacking and adjusting. It’s an interesting dynamic. I think part of it has to do with what I’m learning about myself here. I’ve spent the last couple of days really thinking about what I want to get out of this experience and how I’m going to measure it. Min Young and I talked the other day about “living this life.” She explained how last semester she was so busy traveling and partying and this semester she just wants to live here and enjoy her life. She enjoyed what she did last semester but she is also enjoying this semester too. I’ve been thinking about it and I just wasn’t to know myself well enough to be comfortable with my decision. For instance, if I don’t want to go out one night I shouldn’t feel guilty because I made that decision and thought that it was best for me. It also has a lot to do with who I’m with. I’m not complaining by any means but I really do feel fortunate, knowing that I have people in my life who would help make this experience better. I’d love to travel with family and friends from home- especially Joel. But it’s great that I’m doing this without them, with these people. I can learn more about myself this way and look forward to today that I can experience this with my loved ones. I could also be speaking too soon. I don’t know what will happen with the people here. I may learn to love them as much as my friends at home. I plan on making more of an effort to meet English friends. This morning Lucy told me that I just had to be brave and talk to people. I think I can do that! I’m about to go to town with Min Young. We are going to Lush to get free facials then we’ll come home and have some dinner. I’m not sure what I’ll do tonight yet.

Two weeks after I wrote this entry I was home. Home in the United States.  It didn’t happen as abrupt as it might sound from just a handful of journal entries but I know that up until now you were waiting for something to happen. Something big. Everyone was.

“There isn’t something that you’re not telling us, right,” my mom asked me in a Skype conversation one morning. “No one hurt you?”

They were thinking that there was no way a smart girl like me would just choose to abandon such an experience. The people who know me the best thought, “There has got to be more to the story.” My parents called my boyfriend to see if he knew something that they didn’t.

“What about the call that you got from my dad,” I asked Joel.

“That, I remember exactly where I was. I was working on a paper with my partner in the library annex…he just asked me if I knew anything. He wanted to make sure you weren’t hurt. He wanted to make sure that you were safe and that something hadn’t happen that you didn’t tell him,” Joel said.

“What do you think he was thinking could have happened?”

“I don’t want to say… if you were somehow attacked or assaulted, something had happened to you personally. Like you went out…,” Joel said.

This is back to my Skype conversation with my mom. “No one hurt you did they?”

“Nope,” I said. That is the truth. I am sickened and embarrassed to admit this but after I answered her question I immediately thought to myself, “but would this be easier if I just said ‘yes.’ Or if something like that actually had happened?

At the time it seemed like maybe it would be easier if there were just an answer. I know now that I have spent way too much time looking for one.

I do not attribute my return to homesickness. I did not consult a medical profession to get diagnosed with travel anxiety. Over a year’s time I realized that I do not need an answer. I thought I could study abroad and I found out when I tried that I could not.  It really is that simple.

A month ago I walked into the UMD Study Abroad Office and said, “Hi Deb, my name is Kristen Krebs. I studied abroad in Brighton, England last spring. Do you remember me?”

She looked at me with a smile and said, “The name sounds familiar.”

A little generic but I’ll take it.

I said, “Okay. I actually came home early from my experience and right now, in one of my journalism classes, I’m writing about what that was like. I wanted to consult you as a professional in the field and ask you some questions about what happens when people do come home from their experiences early because I assume it happens.”

“Actually it doesn’t,” she said.

Hmm. That’s not what I thought I was going to hear. In fact, had I heard five months ago, I probably would have been crushed.

She went on, “I hope that doesn’t make you uncomfortable.

It really doesn’t. I’m okay.

At this point she got up from behind her desk walked behind me and shut the door to her office creating a barrier between me and the people outside who might be quick to judge me about the heart-to-heart I am about to have with Deb Good. I assumed she was trying to protect my privacy in this seemingly uncomfortable situation. Her courtesy made me laugh.

What a relief. Not that Deb Good’s door is closed but that mine is.

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