After conquering my first action-packed semester in the US, when I returned for my second after the Christmas break I expected to come back almost victorious. I had overcome all the nerves I had felt before I first came, and had had an incredible few months.
Instead, upon returning to campus I was hit by the same feelings of detachment and homesickness that I thought I thought had been dealt with.
I loved every second of my first semester in America. All the fear I felt when I first arrived four months ago had dissipated by the time I was set to make my first trip home to spend Christmas break with my family. In fact, it was going home to England that had me filled with a strange nervous excitement.
The comfort of visiting home
I had arrived in America with no plans at all, and with no expectation of what was to come. All I knew was that, as an exchange student who is only here for one academic year, I wanted to make the most of the experience before it ended in May.
As I boarded my flight home to England for winter break, I thought about all the places I had been, the friends I had made, and the things I had learned over just my first semester. It was a special feeling – I was flying home with a sense of accomplishment and no regrets about anything I had done in the first half of my year abroad.
Though I felt as if I had been away from home for a lifetime, as soon as I landed and I saw my family at the airport waiting for me, it was as though I had never been gone. I slotted right back into the home life I had left behind.
And I was quickly reminded of all the things I had missed while away; things as trivial as going out for a casual drink at the pub with old friends, without the pressure of having to make a good impression on new people. Not having to think about using particular words or phrases that Americans may not understand or may find offensive was also surprisingly refreshing.
Above all, returning to the country that has made me and that I am familiar with after having been away from it for the longest period of my life gave me an unexpected feeling of comfort, contentment and belonging.
Given how easily I had adjusted back into life at home, I felt no nerves before boarding my flight in Heathrow to head back to College Park, as I expected to slot back into life in America just as easily.
This has not happened.
Why is it hard to come back?
Yes, I knew my way through Dulles Airport this time, and navigated the D.C. Metro with no problem, but I didn’t feel at home. Instead I was completely taken by surprise by feelings of detachment and homesickness, worse even than I had experienced the first time around.
Last time, I was nervous and scared, but also captivated by a naïve wonder and anticipation of the unknown, the new and the exciting – feelings which just haven’t returned.
Even though I had loved my first semester abroad, I realized that I had always felt slightly detached from the American college life – it is worlds away from the English university culture I had known back home. I was used to university being a place where people truly become their own person and face life on a tiny budget without much help from their parents, and the American culture of fraternities and comparatively extortionate tuition fees has never felt quite right, especially since those tuition fees, at least at my university, are often being paid by wealthier families than I had ever come into contact with in England.
Going home and removing this feeling of strangeness and detachment made it feel all the stronger when it came back.
For the first time, I am feeling as though maybe I prefer what I am missing out on in England to what I’m getting in the U.S. Over the break, I went back to my own and to a few of my other friend’s universities and so formed a sharper and fresher comparison between the two ways of life that I could have done when I first arrived last August.
On top of everything, many of my friends at the University of Maryland were only studying abroad for one semester, so they won’t be coming back this semester.
Figuring it out
In many ways I’m back where I was when I first arrived – feeling a bit out of my element, surrounded by many people who I don’t yet know. And I know that I can conquer it. I’ve done it before. And yet, this time I’m finding it difficult to focus on this unique opportunity I have to experience life in a different country and meet probably hundreds of people I would not otherwise have the chance to meet.
Why am I unable to focus on these things this time around?
The difference is that last time I was swept up in the wave of a sudden removal to a new country, meeting scores of new people every single week, visiting new places every week and generally enjoying the unpredictability of life. This time I’m coming back to the relative routine of the predictable college cycle.
It has finally struck me that this semester will be very different to the first, but different does not always mean worse. The challenge last time was to make the most of a new experience. The challenge this time is to find the new and exciting amongst the routine. And just as I conquered the first semester and returned to England victorious, I hope I can find a way to conquer this one too.