I'm wasting my semester abroad watching TV in my apartment

Could I really be blowing the definitive period of my college life?

Published February 28, 2008 11:05AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm 20 years old, normally a happy person, and studying abroad for a semester in Europe. Generally things go well for me and I love life. But coming here has been very far from the affirming, life-changing experience I wanted. Everyone at home envies me this incredible opportunity, and I thought I would learn so much about myself and another culture. I've always seen myself as a cosmopolitan, adventurous, outgoing and optimistic person who had her life together. But since my plane landed over a month ago, I've been so unhappy, and no one at home understands just how hard it's been to adjust to life here.

I haven't made any friends, not even casual acquaintances, and it isn't for a lack of trying. I feel like I walk around the city in a fog, just doing errands and not getting any real experience out of my travel. And it's not just culture shock -- I like the culture here, and it isn't that different from home, really. But after my classes every day, I feel so alone and sad that I just go back to my apartment and sleep or watch television. The days slip by, and I'm just looking forward to going back home so I can resume my "real" life where I'm happy, successful and surrounded by friends and family.

I'm also so angry with myself for wasting this opportunity. I mean, I'm in Europe! I've wanted to study abroad since freshman year, and I thought it would be the definitive event of my college life. I feel like I've failed some kind of test of spirit, and I don't like the person it's making me into. Plus, other people I know who are currently studying elsewhere are having the time of their lives. Am I doing something wrong? Is this normal? I think I've tried everything to help me adjust, and I don't know what else to do.

Shouldn't Have Left

Dear Shouldn't Have Left,

You are going to be OK. This is a challenge you can overcome.

You are there to learn how to respond to novel situations. You are there to learn how to respond to adversity disguised as good fortune. You are there to learn what to do when, plunged into the beauty and romance of Europe, you find yourself in your apartment watching dubbed reruns of "Law and Order."

Europe subtracts routine from your life. Unexplored needs surface. This is the kind of adversity that truly tests a person. It is adversity disguised as good fortune.

Can you recognize what is going on, and consciously make some decisions that result in your becoming energized and engaged and comfortable in a new place? Yes, you can. You've already begun.

Make a schedule for each day. Pick an activity for each day and make yourself do it. Plan your transportation. Plan your currency. Make yourself do it.

Making plans all alone may take more time than you expect it to, so budget at least an hour for planning each activity.

And ask for help. Who is the leader of this semester-abroad experience? Is there a student advisor? Speak to the leader or student advisor and say that you require help in scheduling activities. Make sure you get concrete help. Don't let the person brush you off. Your goal is to get some concrete activities scheduled.

Write them in your calendar. Set a time when you are going to walk out the door, and walk out the door at that time. Carry your map. Consult it.

You will have to do some of the activities by yourself, but wherever possible, plan group activities: long trips by train or car where you can fall into easy conversation; playful, physical activities that result in a loss of self-consciousness.

Also, accept that it is a novel situation and you are going to be uncomfortable. Say to yourself, "I'm feeling uncomfortable but I can handle this." Do not worry too much about adjusting. You do not need to adjust. You just need to function. See the art you want to see. Participate in group activities. Immerse yourself.

When you return, you will be able to say that you discovered just how uncomfortable you can be in novel situations, and you learned how to concentrate and keep a clear head. Plus, alone in Europe, in danger of blowing your whole semester abroad, you came up with a novel problem-solving approach: You wrote to a crazy San Francisco advice columnist on the Internet.

Do you remember where you were when you decided to write to an advice columnist? Were you in your apartment, or in a cafe, or in a classroom? Did the idea come to you in the middle of the night in a moment of sheer terror? Did you imagine your shameful return, having spent the entire European semester in your apartment? In order to make this a good story, remember that moment. The moment when we see we are in trouble is the moment the action begins.

You will be able to laugh about it. You will be able to say, Yes, I went to Europe and found this out: I do not just automatically conquer every situation. I had to actually learn something new about myself, face it, create solutions and implement them.

That's what I like about this: You are getting a story out of it. If you are going to graduate school, you can use this story in your application.

I feel better already, knowing that you are going to take the rather pedestrian but uncomfortable steps I have suggested: planning out your days with activities, asking a student advisor or leader for help and making a good narrative out of what you have learned.

You're going to do this, right? I don't want to have to call your parents!

Ah, you'll be fine.

This will be your best semester. This will be your victory.

The Best of Cary Tennis

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