It would be dishonest, or at least misleading, to not address the struggles of studying abroad at least once. Though I’ve been lucky in my experience so far, I’ve spoken with enough of my peers to know that not everybody’s time here has been as enjoyable as mine.
Surprisingly, it isn’t exactly homesickness that has been an issue. By this point, most of us are used to being away from our original homes for periods of at least ten weeks. What’s hard is rewinding back to what, in many ways, feels like freshmen year: getting used to a new living situation while simultaneously trying to forge meaningful relationships with a bunch of people you don’t know.
To be fair, we all are more than happy to chat with anyone about where we went over the weekend, or discuss what we’re planning to write our High Renaissance midterm papers on. But you can only repeat that script so many times before it feels old. And because the social groups here formed quite quickly, some people feel like they haven’t yet found their niche. Others think that, were they to venture into another circle, it would be considered a social incursion. As a result, people stay mostly separated outside of class.
Some people are also experiencing difficulty with their homestays; they feel that their host parents are too overbearing, or don’t put enough effort into meals. Some people have roommates who go to bed at odd hours, or insist on discussing topics people feel would be better left alone, or are just plain rude.
In short, Florence isn’t perfect. This shouldn’t surprise you. Why should Italy, or any country for that matter, be the place one can finally be happy and content? Studying abroad isn’t some cosmic emotional, academic band-aid for bringing fulfillment and peace-of-mind. People don’t believe that’s what they believe, but think about it.
Remember the subconscious hope many of us clutched in our hearts in high school, that if we could just get into a top school, or get a big scholarship, or get into Stanford, then everything would be great? That then we could finally breathe easy? All our hard work would finally pay off, and the rest of our lives would be set, thanks to a Stanford degree. We would spend the next stage of our lives surrounded by ambitious, inspirational people who came from a multitude of backgrounds and were headed towards a bigger and brighter future, just like us!
And then at some point during our first year, maybe as early as NSO, maybe around a particularly difficult p-set, paper, or exam, we realized… wait a minute. I’m not… happy. In fact, I’m lonely. Does anybody here really know me? They don’t get where I’m from, what I’ve been through, what I’m thinking, who I really am, and they don’t actually care. And I’m stressed. A degree from this school doesn’t guarantee me internships or jobs; I’m just getting started on this career path. And everything is so easy for everybody else, but not for me.
I’m not saying everybody feels like this all the time, but I’ve yet to meet somebody who hasn’t struggled a little at some point while on campus. It’s normal, and altogether predictable. We feel like we can’t rest, despite having officially been validated as worthy by one of the foremost academic institutions in the world. That’s because there’s always something more to do to prove ourselves. Another test, project, internship, promotion, always something else to strive towards.
Or maybe it’s the social or romantic aspect of life here that leaves us wanting more, struggling to find people we can depend on, people who know our quirks and strengths and flaws and love us anyways, people who get us.
But so what that Stanford isn’t as fabulous as the brochures said it was? That’s not news, no school could be nirvana. And yes, we face a lot of pressure to achieve here. So does every student who goes to any Ivy, anybody who wants a high-paying career. Plus, feeling alone and unloved is a universal human struggle, not a difficulty unique to Stanford. The problems we face as students of this university are real, but they are not problems that will disappear once we graduate, or once we go someplace else.
This might sound callous, or like I’m trivializing what others are going through right now, that I think there’s nothing anybody can do to better their circumstances and improve their lives. Like maybe I don’t quite understand how hard Stanford can get.
But human being to human being, the reality is that life can and does get hard for everybody, and that’s natural. There is nowhere we can go, no level of success we can attain, where this is not true. I’ve become okay with that, in ways I’m more than happy to share with anybody who asks. But none of them include “live in Florence” or “study abroad,” and yours shouldn’t either.
Florence is pretty. So is Stanford, and a lot of other places. Florence has history. So does Stanford, and a lot of other places. Just like at Stanford, being in Florence is a privilege. And being in either place isn’t perfect.
Turns out happiness can’t be found by being allowed to study in a specific location, which is too bad, since I happen to like simple solutions. But it also makes me hopeful, because it means we get a bigger say on our outlook on life than just reflecting our surroundings. And I, personally, want to be defined by more than the city I live in.
Contact Katiana Uyemura at kuyemura ‘at’ stanford.edu.