I am abroad, everything feels hard, and I am very sad.
I don’t blame this on you. It’s not your fault that in Sweden the sun sets at 2 pm, nor is it your fault that 30 Rock reruns are much more appealing than “getting myself out there” and doing things. It’s not your fault that the program I selected is an academic joke, or that my friends back at school aren’t great at keeping in touch, or even that I chose a major that requires going abroad.
Those are all things I can’t blame you for. In fact, there isn’t really that much that you’ve done wrong. To be honest, I’m probably just looking for a scapegoat so that I can feel less guilty for being sad and unproductive and lonely.
That said, I’ve been thinking a lot about you and the abroad process recently. I wrote a post on my study abroad blog last week about being depressed that apparently struck chords with a lot of people. I got Facebook messages from family members, from seniors who had been abroad, and from other kids who are currently abroad (the largest percentage), saying that they were feeling (or had felt) the exact same way, and were relieved that someone had put it in writing. It’s very comforting to know that other people share your feelings on a subject, mainly because it means that you’re not crazy.
However, while knowing you’re sane is nice, it left me feeling really weird. It felt wrong to me that so many people were writing me saying things like (and these are quotes):
“You articulated so well exactly everything I’ve been thinking and feeling lately.”
“I feel like I’m going through a similar time.”
“We can be depressed, together.”
“I think part of the abroad experience is sort of coping with loneliness.”
“Everything you said hit home really hard with me because I’ve been feeling this way too and I’ve had a pretty rough time since being in this country.”
“So much of this sums up my experience abroad as well.”
“Everyone cries themselves to sleep during some parts of their lives”
and my favorite, which I strongly relate to:
“I was thinking about how it always feels like I’m in an unemotional but definitely not happy fog and then I suggested to myself that maybe I should try antidepressants and then I thought about being happy all the time and I shivered to myself and decided to keep my dismalness.”
Notice a theme? To be frank, I expected to get a lot of sympathetic messages. A lot of “hang in there!”s and “we love you!”s and “I’ve always thought you were super hot, and I just wanted to tell you that when you get back to campus I’m going to jump your bones!!!”s.
Ok, well maybe I was just hoping for the last one. But that’s sorta along the lines of what I was expecting. But instead of sympathy, I got empathy. That is to say, instead of people pitying me, they were telling me that they’ve also been in my shoes.
So while all of these things were comforting, I was seriously disturbed by their frequency. If everyone is feeling like this, why am I the only one talking about it? And also, why was I never warned that it was a thing?
The first one is fairly easy. No one talks about depression because there’s this dumb social stigma that makes depression something to be ashamed of. I personally think it should be treated like breaking a leg. Like you say to someone, “Hey, I’ve been really depressed lately.” And they’re like, “That really sucks. Is there anything I can do for you?” and you say, “I don’t think so, I’ll let you know if you can,” and then you continue on with life. That would be cool. But it doesn’t really work like that.
That second question, “Why was I never warned this was a thing?” is the one that concerns me more, and feels more tackle-able. And more than that, “Now that I know this is a thing, why do I feel so alone?”
From the start of my abroad process, I have felt very alone. Some things about abroad are just things you have to accept, but there’s a lot about it that I feel is unnecessarily difficult. Too often, I feel like I read angsty letters that present problems without solutions. I think the solutions here are fairly simple, so I’m going to suggest some for you. This way, you (Wesleyan), have no choice but to acknowledge that you could fix this stuff, and are just choosing not to. Which would make you look like a tool. Just saying.
PROBLEM: The abroad office is totally inaccessible. If you’ve tried to study abroad, you’ve probably been frustrated before by the fact that they’re only open for drop in two hours a day. Last semester, I had class every day, and the only time that jived with my schedule was the hour from 10 AM to 11 AM on Mondays. And like, I know that it was still possible, but when it came down to an extra hour of sleep, or waking up an hour earlier to read past accounts of a program that I had already applied to, which was I going to choose? I’m a college student, not Superman (though, I understand the confusion—we both have wavy hair and wear more spandex than we should in public). So why couldn’t I just flip through a book?
SOLUTION: Accessibility. This is an easy one. I totally understand that there are only a few employees to help hundreds of students, so they can keep on doing what they’re doing, having visiting hours, and scheduling appointments. What made me annoyed was that I wanted to flip through a book, and had to wake up at 10 AM to do so, only for 45 minutes, before rushing to class. My solution to this is simple. One solution: Keep the books in one of the libraries, so that students can have access to it whenever they have the time. I’m not really worried that anyone is going to run off with the hefty binders of study abroad anecdotes, but if you’re worried about theft, keep them at a reference desk. The other, more obvious solution: put this shit online. There is no reason that the evaluations we fill out couldn’t be on a database that the study abroad web page links to. I can see it now…it has a blue and orange color scheme, star ratings like yelp, and an easy search function. Would that really be so hard? I’m not even asking you to take all those old entries and put them online. Just start now, with this year. And three years from now, you can clear all those clunky binders off the shelves, and it will feel like Christmas in July. Or whatever month it is that you decide to throw them out.
PROBLEM: I did not know I was going to be so sad. There’s a page of the Study Abroad website entitled “Culture Shock,” that warns me about the dangers of, you guessed it, Culture Shock (which sounds to me like a terrible 80s kids movie, probably starring Jamie Lee Curtis). All you have to do is find the OIS homepage (good luck), click “While Abroad” on the left, and then click “Culture Shock.” There, you’ll find helpful tips such as: “Remember your strengths!”, “Be curious.” And my personal favorite: “Develop a hobby.” Do you feel helped? I do. Oh wait sorry, I misspelled that, it was supposed to read: “No I do not fucking feel helped.”
SOLUTION: Tell us that there is help, and we can get it. Again, seems obvious, right? My solution to this one would be simple. Send us a little email about a week into the program, telling us about culture shock. Cut the generalizations and stuff I see on posters in boring people’s dorm rooms. In kind, non-medical terms, say, “Hey! This can be hard. Here are some philosophical and concrete ways to stave of sadness in a strange new place. Are you feeling particularly sad right this moment? Here is a GIF of a puppy dressed like a bear running on a treadmill, because who doesn’t need that right now? If the puppy isn’t helping enough, here’s the email of a person that could help you.” This topic also brings us to an even bigger issue:
PROBLEM: I need actual help, and I don’t think you can actually help me. Okay, so I’m sad. Like, really sad. Like, needing therapy sad. What can I do about it? I could ask my parents for a therapist, but how would they do that? They could research good therapists, try to find one they’d think I’d like, and then maybe set up a Skype call? That’s a lot of work. And a lot of kids aren’t as lucky as I am, and don’t feel comfortable asking their parents for a therapist. Let’s say I’m one of them. I could try to get a therapist on my own here in Sweden, but a) I wouldn’t even know how to start, b) I don’t have a Swedish phone, and c) they have free health care here, but I do not, and getting a therapist here would involve me trying to negotiate health insurance, which a) sounds stressful, and b) would involve my parents. Which is what I was trying to avoid in this situation. That brings us to CAPS. CAPS is supposed to be there for me, but I honestly never really feel like they are. Raise your hands if you’ve ever thought about going to CAPS, but then decided it was too much work. Everyone? Great. I went once, and it was ok. The therapist was nice, and he gave me his card. But a few days later I tried to schedule another appointment, and they were booked solid for the next few days. They asked if it was “urgent,” and, well, no, I guess it wasn’t urgent, so I told myself I’d call a few days later and try again. I never did. I know a lot of kids at Wesleyan who’ve been through the same thing. The truth of the matter is that it’s really really hard to get therapy at Wesleyan. Like, way harder than it should be. Way more inconvenient, way more uncomfortable, and way more effort. Add that I can’t call because it’s international and I don’t have a phone, multiply by a 6 hour time difference, divide by the fact that I don’t even know if they would do a phone call, and CAPS is basically out of the question. (And x= 7, by the way.)
SOLUTION: Have some kind of abroad-specific program. Oh, and hire more people. Wesleyan costs a lot. I think we could afford another therapist or two. Okay? Okay. Moreover, I’m currently paying a full semester’s worth of tuition to go to a program that is much cheaper. Wesleyan is making a huge profit off of me right now, and I don’t think it’s that much to ask that they at least check in to make sure I’m doing okay. Speaking of which, we should really have an abroad-specific program that deals with culture shock, isolation, and depression. Claiming you don’t have enough resources for that? Okay. How about some kind of program where people who have been abroad but are at Wesleyan take a short course on how to comfort people with depression. Then we have an anonymous emailing site where kids who are abroad can email people who have been abroad (both are anonymous), and say “Help! I am sad!” and the ex-abroaders can say, “That sucks. I was in a similar place. It gets a lot better.” I know this might not sound like a big deal, but I think it would really help. Especially because a lot of the time, I’m terrified that this new depression thing is something that will stick, that I’ll spend the rest of my life in this funk. And having people there to recite the Trevor Project mantra could actually really help. I think people would volunteer to do it, especially if they were helped by it, and also because it would take such little time. Sound good? Good. These emails could include concrete tips on how to be happier, like, “It’s winter! Make paper snowflakes!” or “Buy yourself some chocolate today. You deserve it.” or “The Ampersand photoshopped Michael Roth’s face onto a [insert obscure animal here]. Read it and laugh.” I think that would be nice.
PROBLEM: Pre-Reg is the literal worst. Can everyone just say this one with me? Pre-Reg is the literal worst. I was talking to a friend on my program who goes to Brown. She was registering for classes as I sat next to her. She looked at her screen, clicked a button, and said, “Yay! I got all my classes!” I nearly punched her in the face. Instead I smiled and told her that she was lucky, because every semester I have only gotten one class in Pre-Reg. It makes everything so stressful. Thankfully I have ended up in semi-interesting and relevant classes, but still. Come on. I was annoyed to find out upon coming to Europe that as hard as Pre-Reg is in Middletown, it’s way harder here. You can’t go to professors’ office hours, and so you become just a name amongst the flood of emails they get. Your advisor isn’t as readily available, and you can’t as readily ask other students which classes they liked or didn’t like. I was also lucky that the 8 AM adjustment period time was actually just mid-afternoon for me, but I imagine that for people in countries with other time zones, that was probably an issue.
SOLUTION: Make Pre-Reg not the worst. The number one thing would be to just have more classes available at Wesleyan. I understand though that this is easier said than done, and requires a lot more money than we have, probably. Okay, fine. Here are some other solutions. My number one “let’s just make things better” idea would be to make it pretty. Our ePortfolio is the ugliest thing of all time. Here are some things prettier than our current system: the gorgon Medusa, Steven Santagati’s personality, the exterior of the Nics. This is such an easy fix. For the love of God, hire some programmer to make it prettier, more accessible, and more organized. Have some senior do it as his programming thesis. I want my ePortfolio to be so beautiful that upon opening the page, I reach climax. I want WesMaps to be so beautiful that Natalie Portman would play it in a movie. I want my Pre-Reg class list to be so beautiful that those whose hearts aren’t true will look on it and explode into dust, like vampires. Do this, and I promise that student morale will immediately go up. Also, maybe have some kind of Pre-Reg timeline that’s readily available (and also in the color scheme that our now beautiful Pre-Reg is in). Every year I find a class that looks great, only to realize that the date for sending the professor a POI request was a month ago. And that is the worst feeling. (Oh. Other than this fucking terrible depression.)
PROBLEM: I’m cut off from campus and it feels like none of my friends care or miss me. One of the hardest parts of being abroad that no one tells you about is that you don’t know what’s going on around campus. You want to believe that Wesleyan is on pause while you’re gone, a la the classic Adam Sandler film Click.** The realization that it still is changing and growing and continuing without your presence is really sad, and being out of the loop is like being the one person at WesRave without the playlist. You can dance along, and pretend you’re just like everyone else, but then N’Sync comes on and everyone shrieks, and you feel very, very alone.
SOLUTION: Skype Your Friends Day. This was a hard one to come up with a solution for. Friendships work, or don’t work, on an individual level, so coming up with a way to help everyone’s is basically futile. I think it would be nice, though, if the university (or this fun emailing program I came up with, probably) would email the whole junior class, or even the whole school, just saying, “Hey! If you have a friend who’s abroad that you haven’t talked to in a little while, shoot them an email, write them a postcard, plan a skype session. Tell them what’s going on, tell them you love them and miss them. They’ll really appreciate it, and you will too if you ever go abroad.” Wouldn’t that be nice? I think that would be nice.
I am abroad, everything feels hard, and I am very sad. I know other people are feeling the same way, and I hope those people read this article, and maybe even begin talking about it. I have outlined some basic problems, and given you some basic solutions. Will you help us, please?
*A different time from when I burst into tears listening to Taylor Swift’s “Red,” which can be seen on Hormones of Wesleyan.
**I have never seen Click and never intend to, because it looks fucking terrible.
Johnny LaZebnik is a member of the class of 2016.