Know Thyself: Confessions of #abroad

There are key moments that define the Amherst experience: living on the first-year quad, taking Intro to Econ, hating on Noodle Bar, etc. With close to half of Amherst students studying abroad during their junior year, a semester away from Amherst has joined the ranks of our hallowed traditions.

Before I went abroad, I believed that placing someone’s body in a new space made that person, themselves, new. Perhaps this is how we think of study abroad collectively, especially given the ever-abundant use of social media. We watch our friends literally from behind a screen, following their adventures on meticulously-stocked Instagram feeds and 10-second Snapchat Story narratives. We speak of them with mystery — as a first year, I was fed lines like, “Oh, she’s abroad, but you would love her,” with little knowledge of what that person was like or doing in real time. And within our speculations lies the assumption that #abroad exists in a different dimension, (meta)physically distant from Amherst. Surely there, the trivialities, conflicts, mundaneness, stress of our small liberal arts college do not exist. It is a space where we can be our most interesting and sophisticated (read: #Euro) selves.

When I finally arrived in Cape Town back in February, I felt like I had been spit out of a magic vortex. I was happily disoriented. Nowhere in South Africa could I detect traces of Amherst, which had started to feel stale after my sophomore year. In this mystic euphoria, I felt like a blank slate — I no longer heard echoes of Amherst Awkward or the anxiety I couldn’t shake back on campus. No one at my host university knew me, and this was my chance to rewrite the script. I wanted to feel and act on this newness and readily slipped it on, like a new dress. Abroad Diane would skip class to go to the beach, hop into random strangers’ cars (don’t tell my mom) and sneak into caves hanging off gargantuan cliffs. After my adventures, I would browse through my own Instagram feed and wonder if I looked different enough, cool enough, cultured enough now. Had I undergone the ritual of abroad? Had I achieved nirvana?

Well, as Kurt Cobain once said, “The worst crime is faking it.” The magic of abroad had worn off by the second month. The habits from my life at Amherst would slowly rear its head everywhere I went, from my classes to my dorm. Even in my abroad dreamland, everything from small and pesky habits, like oversleeping, to bigger challenges, like my anxiety, followed me like a shadow. While I was convincing myself of my own novelty, my problems still waited to remind me that I was yet the same. I grew desperate for the “drab to fab” transformation of “The Princess Diaries,” combined with the spiritual enlightenment of the biblical Eve.

If only we refreshed as quickly as our Instagram posts. It turns out that the irony of abroad is that you become different in your sameness. My frustration cooled into a reluctant observation of my peculiarities, my flaws and my thoughts. I resisted the urge to try to change myself — to see change as something to save me from myself. And the more I got to know myself, the more pleasantly surprised I became. I began to rely less on my environment to inform who I was. It’s almost like learning to ride a bike for the first time — you worry about falling (and if you have anxiety like me, you worry about cracking your skull open and dying), but grow comfortable after the initial fear. It’s an act of trust in yourself, and once you master it, you’re riding through the breeze.

Whether or not you go abroad, most of us are in transition, by virtue of being in college. We note the differences from one year to another; this senior fall already feels light years away from when I first hauled my things into North College Hall three summers ago. But we ultimately change not because we see and experience new things, but because we finally notice who we are. That includes who you always have been, who you currently are, and how you envision yourself in the future. Our bodies grasp change as extensions of ourselves, ways of growing into a new shell while shedding the old.

Of course, I still have a long way to go, and I think there are few people who are fully comfortable with every part of themselves. There are parts of myself that I am still learning and growing into, especially as I transition out of Amherst into adulthood. When the process becomes difficult, I want to lean into myself a bit more. Whether you just moved into your first-year dorm or are freaking out about graduation, try trusting yourself. No one says it better than the VIP of this article (and alternative rock), Kurt Cobain: “Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are.”