"Did you have, like, the time of your life?” When I tell people that I studied abroad last semester, this is the near–unanimous opening question. It seems that before people want to know where I was or what I did, they want to confirm that studying in another country is the most fantastic, amazing, life–changing experience of all time. They also seek to affirm the popular notion of an all–play, no–work semester that you so often hear about.
I, too afraid to crush their dreams, usually just tell them that I had a great time, and I did, but it would also be a complete lie to describe four months unlike any I have ever experienced before, filled with thrilling highs and inevitable lows, as “the time of my life.”
Don’t get me wrong; it was an immensely rewarding semester. I had countless unforgettable, fun moments, made lifelong friends and travelled to more places than I can count on two hands. I returned to the U.S. with near fluency in a foreign language, plenty of funny stories and a new appreciation not only for foreign cultures but also for my life here.
But anyone who tells you that being abroad is a nonstop vacation or a different party every night certainly wasn’t on my program. Having apparently only spoken to these people before I left, though, I arrived with the unrealistically optimistic perspective that I’d coast through a four–month fiesta peppered with the occasional class or assignment. What I got instead was a foreign educational experience, which, thanks to Penn Abroad’s brutal grade conversion scale, threatened to leave a huge dent in my GPA.
Initially I was, for lack of better words, kinda pissed. I watched other American students, whose classes were all in English and seemed to meet for a total of 30 seconds a week, while I dutifully attended real university classes and did my assigned reading. Much like here, I had to balance my “extracurriculars” (i.e. weekend trips around Europe) with schoolwork and exam preparation.
In between trips to the Louvre and Laduree in Paris, I grudgingly snuck in reading assignments and reviewed flashcards. I even contemplated cancelling a trip to Brussels because of a final in my Philosophy of Don Quixote class.My classes were interesting, and the professors were engaging, but I just hadn’t expected to have to hit the books so hard.
After the three weeks of exam studying that concluded my time abroad, I was absolutely thrilled to be back at Penn. This past week, I caught up with friends who I hadn’t seen since May and actually understood everything going on in my classes. I was pleasantly surprised, probably thanks to the lack of a language barrier, how straightforward everything seemed. I thought, bizarrely, that my Penn classes seemed easy. Is it possible that my abroad experience had unexpectedly actually turned me into a better student
It’s probably too early to tell, and I’m sure I’ll slip back into my old habits soon enough, but such realizations have certainly made me reconsider my disdain for my overseas academic work. I had learned a lot, and I don’t feel as if I sacrificed other aspects of my abroad experience to do so. If I were to give a truthful response to the initial question, I wouldn’t shy away from telling the truth.