In 2015-2016 I moved to Salt Lake City to embark on my year abroad at the University of Utah. I left the UK with my family and spent two weeks travelling through Nevada, Arizona and Utah as our family holiday and said my final goodbyes to them before my first week of classes at Utah. I wrote a series of blog posts whilst I was on my year abroad which I used to detail my adventures to my family and friends. You can read these here - My Year Abroad in Utah. However, I wanted to write a post detailing the reality of moving across the world and the hurdles you have to overcome and what it taught me.
Firstly, unlike many of my friends from Swansea, my home university, I was the only exchange student from Swansea at Utah. From the very beginning, I was up for a challenge; however I think this really impacted on how I moved forwards with my experience. For those of you who may be going with a fellow student from home, I have heard the initial move is easier and you will find yourselves spending time with the same group of people at the beginning of the experience. If homesickness is a worry, I would recommend travelling with another student to your exchange university, as you will have a comforting face in the first week and throughout the whole experience.
As I went by myself, it was crucial that I made friends with others in my situation. I made a blunder at international orientation by still being on holiday with my family. Whilst I went down to Salt Lake City most days to sit in international meetings and orientations, I went back to Park City, about a 45 minutes’ drive from the University every day. This meant I didn’t engage with my other J-1 visa exchange students in the evening and therefore wasn’t friends with them when they made plans early on in the semester to go traveling. I remember the disappointment I felt in myself when I saw the posts on social media, knowing that if I had made an effort at the first week, I would have made firm friends sooner on. This being said, I reconnected with the international exchange group later on in the year and spent a lot of time skiing, traveling and partying with this group. They were all fantastic people and were a great support system when I started to feel homesick later on in the second semester. Not fully throwing myself into International Orientation Week is one of the reasons why I think I really struggled with the first few weeks in Utah.
I luckily had some fantastic flat mates who introduced me to their friendship group and invited me to football and volleyball games as well as parties in the first week of classes. I got to meet so many great people that first week, all of whom were local and I continued to be firm friends with them for the rest of the year and onwards. I did feel isolated in my foreign-ness, mainly in that on weekends and prolonged days off school, these new found friends returned to their families. I came to Utah expecting invitations to their homes and offers of road trips, the reality coming as a bitter disappoint to my naive self. The first long weekend, Labor Day, I sat obsessively on social media following the fun my fellow Swansea friends were having at their new universities and comparing my experience to others. Rather than getting up and experiencing something myself, I sat in my room and cried. This was one of my lowest points on the year abroad.
From those first few weeks of homesickness and scattered expectations, my first semester got considerably better. I settled into classes, went to football games and other sporting events with my flatmates and attended parties, getting to know more people and felt like I was part of a solid friendship group. After initial panic about what I was going to spend Fall Break doing after the Labor Weekend disaster, I flew to Colorado with my friend Anna to visit a friend who studied in Fort Collins. Anna offered both me and my friend Holly a home for Thanksgiving and with the prospect of this as well as a trip to Seattle, my plans to travel around the West Coast came more into place. It was at this time also that I reconnected with the international students and found people to ski with for the season.
All the expectations of easy friends, a list of people wanting to ski with me/ travel with me were unrealistic and I came back to Earth with a heavy bump. Although it may not have been as easy I thought, I did find people to ski with and I find people to travel the country with. I also had to learn to become more independent and to do things myself without waiting for someone else to accompany me. If I hadn’t learned this, I wouldn’t have skied half as much as I did and would have regretted a lot more than I do.
My second semester taught me about how to be myself whilst also not unbalancing the status quo. I struggled to maintain friendships that semester and found I isolated people with my opinions on certain parts of American cultures and my outlook on certain things. I also grew to miss home, and passionately talked to my friends about what it was that made me miss England. I learnt that this can cause divides and that for some; it became apparent that I didn’t immediately belong. Talking to others who spent the year abroad in the US and Europe, this was not just something I alone experienced and many felt isolated by their local peers. I think I found this hard to grasp and although I understand and respect the reaction that my views (eg. Gun Control) had on others, at the time I felt that my opinion and beliefs should be completely respected. Because of this, I lost a friend and trod very lightly for the remainder of my time there. It led me to crave British company and my trip to Vegas with Holly and a visit from a home friend were well needed in keeping me going in those last few weeks. I’d come to the end of my tether and was looking forward to home comforts and a well-known way of life.
Added to this, my Grandfather died mid-March, two months before I was due to come home. I flew back for the funeral and remember counting down the days until I left Utah and could be with my family again. Grandpa’s death hit me harder than I expected and coupled with the complexity of my friendships in Utah made me feel very isolated.
My last two weeks however, were some of the best. I attended more parties and events and was kept busy seeing all the sights that I had not yet hit in the local area. Nisha held me a leaving meal and I was gifted a sweet photo album with photos and letters. I realised what I would be leaving and did a U-turn in my emotions, wishing I didn’t have to leave.
My year abroad was a fantastic experience that I will never regret. I wanted to write this post as I feel my blog posts at the time sugar coated the experience; after all, no one wants to hear how you are having a difficult time. What we post on social media can look idyllic and I had many friends telling me after I returned that my posts and photos made them feel that my experience was perfect, making them question their own situation abroad. Little did they know that sitting on the internet on that Labor Day weekend, seeing their posts, I felt as they did!
This post is not meant to discourage travel abroad or making friendships with locals and other internationals alike. I had an amazing experience, and one that taught me many lessons for further travels.