Just like that, my semester in Paris is halfway done. The sprawling green lawns are now ornamented with crisp and multicolored fall leaves. Daily temperatures have securely plateaued below the 50-degree mark. And the stride in my step has been bolstered by a boost in confidence borne out of newfound familiarity. These shifts are decisive, and there is no going back.
Throughout this journey so far, the biggest challenges I have faced have been mentally propelled. Traveling is often conducive to the collaborative conundrums of stress, anxiety, and disarray. Studying abroad, furthermore, demands an even more complex framework of self-situating than the average vacation. Beyond trivial inconveniences and the necessity of a gradual period of adjustment, the most difficult aspect of this experience has been the conglomeration of various types of pressures that seem to pervade even the most fulfilling of moments.
- Time Pressure
Evidently, a semester abroad is defined by its temporality. As such, my peers and I often feel pressure to constantly make the most of every moment, knowing that our time here is limited. While these time-based parameters can incentivize students to maximize each day and serve as a useful way to contextualize one’s experience, they can also inhibit one’s feelings of personal freedom and comfort. Since the semester only has so many weekends, many students feel an obligation to travel as much as they can and spend the remainder of their free time exploring their home base. Often, such a hectic schedule doesn’t allow enough legroom for quiet moments of solitude, rest and self-reflection. Students are led to feel as though they have to prioritize the semblance of optimizing their time and thereby place less of an emphasis on keeping their mental well-being in check.
- Academic Pressure
The pressure of school is two-fold while abroad. On one hand, it requires students to step out of their comfort zone and take classes unlike any others they have taken before, often in global languages other than English. For example, I am taking three out of my five classes in French this semester, and undeniably, it is at times overwhelming to undertake already strenuous coursework in a non-native language. On the other hand, there is an expectation across the NYU community that academics are supposed to be much more manageable while abroad and that students should be progressing successfully in their classes with more ease than they would on the Washington Square campus. This adds an additional sense of pressure which makes students feel as though they are not supposed to be struggling in their classes at all, discrediting the hard work that is required to excel in many of these courses. While my schedule in Paris is much more spaced out and flexible than my regimented and chaotic schedule back in New York, focusing on academics here is still a constant challenge, especially as I work to get used to my surroundings and manage my time comprehensively.
- Social Pressure
We all know a handful of people who return from their semesters abroad having made their lifelong best friends while away. Unfortunately, this is not the reality for the majority of people, since four months is typically not a sufficient amount of time to forge long-standing connections. Making friends abroad can be tricky because students often interact with one another due to circumstance as opposed to common interests. There is no saying whether two people here would still be getting along in the context of the Washington Square campus. Furthermore, due to the limited nature of the time period, students are expected to continually remain open-minded, positive, and flexible when it comes to interacting with new people, even during the stressful situations that often come up when traveling. As such, most students don’t have the opportunity to let their guard down. Moreover, the small class size of each study away site results in insular communities that are starkly different from NYU’s New York campus, which is perpetually brimming with thousands of students who belong to a vast variety of niches; for many, including me, this is a positive and refreshing difference, but it still poses its obstacles. I came to study abroad not knowing anyone in my program well. All my close friends either stayed in New York or chose other study away sites in Europe. While I am grateful to be having the opportunity to meet a whole new batch of people, many of whom I see myself continuing to be great friends with after this semester wraps up, starting from scratch in a social sense has been taxing during times when I’ve needed my support system.
- Cultural Pressure
Semesters abroad are an opportunity to immerse oneself in local culture and language. For me, that primarily means speaking French as much as I possibly can to improve my language skills. For others, it could mean anything from getting to know a local student or pen pal to living in a homestay to refraining from using any English at all in public contexts. Within the NYU bubble, there is a pressure to go above and beyond to maximize the extent of one’s sense of cultural immersion, but existing outside of the boundaries of one’s comfort zone at all times can be draining for even the most global of citizens. The key is to strive for a sense of experiential moderation that allows you to engage organically with local culture without the task having to feel burdensome.
- Broadcasting Pressure
Last, but not least, many students face pressure to curate their study abroad experiences on social media in an effective way. Whether through the vessel of a daily blog, an Instagram story, or a Facebook feed, we call upon technology to archive our journeys, share them with our loved ones, and give them a sense of longevity. The downside of such a framework is that it leads people to want to do things for the sake of social media as opposed to alongside it. In the digital age, taking a picture of a moment seems to trump veritably living in it. I have had to remind myself to stop caring so much about the way I portray my semester abroad online; in 10 years, I’m not going to look back and remember the Instagram post I made that one weekend in Provence. Instead, I will remember the memories themselves, which helped to form my sense of identity, unfiltered.
None of these pressures hold enough magnitude to diminish the value of a semester abroad. The key is to allow yourself to go with the flow and simply work to authentically persist regardless of any deterrents along the way. If anything, these hurdles serve to strengthen one’s sense of self-awareness, which is one of the greatest gifts we could hope to gain from any travel-oriented adventure. With half of the semester left to conquer, I hope that honing an understanding of the pressures I am prone to facing will result in a satisfactory and smooth home stretch for me.