Social media can be deceiving. We all know that people usually only post the “best” pictures and moments from their lives, but sometimes it’s hard for our brains to remember that as we scroll through endless pictures of people smiling, posing, and visiting cool places. I fell into this trap of thinking that life is all rainbows and butterflies when I arrived in Barcelona last month. I had come to the city alone, not knowing anyone else. It will be fine, I thought to myself, went to college 800 miles from home and made friends so easily. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
The difference between starting at a new college as a freshman and joining study abroad program is as follows: when you are a freshman at a new school, you’re in the same boat as almost everyone else, no one knows each other; however, most people come abroad with their friends. I expected this, but I didn’t think fully through all the challenges that came along with infiltrating an already formed friend group. I met people in class and through different activities. They were nice, we talked, we maybe exchanged social media information and that was about the end of it. What followed was smiles and waives to each other when we passed in the hallway but never an invite out or plans to get together. I reached out to friends to make plans, but I was always worried that I was intruding or pestering them too much with my constant requests to tag along on their daily activities.
My loneliness was only magnified by the fact that I was an entire ocean away from home, my friends from college, and my parents. I grew up traveling to other states to stay with relatives by myself, spending a few weeks out of the summer at sleep-away-camp, and even ventured a stiff twelve-hour drive away from home for college and I have never been one to experience homesickness. However, there is something about being in a whole new country alone that felt different.
Throughout my first month I spent days alone in my compact, single room feeling trapped and praying that something would change. If I could just fid one person who wanted to hang out with me, I would be okay. I called my mom and friends from school to fill the long stretches I would go without talking to anyone in person. Its’ not like I wasn’t trying to be social; I am actually a very social person. The group of girls I hung out with during that first month honestly contributed to the problem. Yes, it was fantastic to get out of my room and explore the city, but with them it came at the price of feeling like I was unwelcome and unimportant. Despite the size of the sidewalk, there was never any room for me to walk along side of them. I was always pushed to the back. I was never addressed during conversations, my opinion was not valued, and I always ended up in the odd chair at meals. It even got to the point where when I asked to grab dinner in the café where we have our meal plan, my texts would go unanswered until I went down to get food on my own and saw them all sitting there without me.
After a lot of sad days, I realized that I was worth more. I didn’t need to be friends with people that would treat me as if I wasn’t of equal value. Studying abroad isn’t about making friends, it’s about experiencing a new place, and finding friends along the way. My desire to find friends first was clouding my experience of such an amazing city. I was perfectly capable of venturing out on my own. Once I accepted that my entire experience began to change. I began to explore on my own and do what I wanted to do. I even went paragliding on my own in Switzerland, which was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had and totally empowering. Oddly enough, once I broke away from trying so hard to make girls like me that just didn’t want to add another head to their group, I started being myself more which lead to me meeting more people in my classes, and even making some real friends. My entire mindset shifted. I started living abroad for myself and not for others. I was happier. I was stronger.
Something else that I’ve taken away from this experience so far is that it is extremely common to feel lonely abroad. Usually when I open up about my experience to people, they confess that they have or are going through something similar. When my mom realized that I wasn’t enjoying my time abroad she reached out to some of our family friends who had kids go abroad to see if they had any advice. To my surprise, both people she contacted said that their kids abroad were miserable at the beginning and extremely lonely, as well. They said a lot of people struggle at the beginning but assured us that it gets better with time. Luckily for me, it has been getting better. Even though there were days I felt as if there was no hope, I’ve realized that the experience was overall good for me. I learned to be much more independent and content in my own company. I also learned how to reach out to people and push yourself to be social with strangers even if it feels uncomfortable at first.
To anyone reading this that feels lonely in a new place, keep pushing through. Get out of your comfort zone to meet new people or learn to be happier in your own company. Most of all, know that you’re not alone. To anyone who may be in a place and notice someone who may be lonely, take the step to start a conversation with them and even invite them out if it feels right. I promise, it could change their lives, and yours.