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Navigating Friendships Abroad

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Many people embark upon their study abroad adventure ready to forge friendships of a lifetime. And, the truth of it is, when everyone is excited and open to new experiences, finding people to do things with is quite easy. What is more complicated is learning to navigate these relationships, some of which may be based purely on proximity, and peter out when you return to campus. Others may be people that are fun to hang out with, but not the best for traveling with. Managing your expectations when it comes to friendships abroad is important, especially when you consider that above all your study abroad experience is about your growth, both personal and academic.

Picture your first day abroad, stepping off the plane to thousands of new sights, sounds, and smells. Your heart is likely buzzing with excitement, your senses drinking in everything around you. The honeymoon phase is setting in quickly, a time when you will want to scarcely do anything other than explore your new home. Everyone else is feeling this too. That is often why friendships abroad form quickly, whether that be the person who sat next to you on the plane or your random roommate. Many people go abroad alone, and are looking for someone to experience this newness alongside. Think of your freshman year at college, but times a thousand. The people you are closest in proximity to become a safety blanket, people that won’t laugh at your silly blundering mistakes because they’re making them right along with you.

This isn’t a bad thing, of course, but it explains why the friendships you make abroad don’t always last after you come home. Things that you had in common abroad suddenly seem far more insignificant when the comparative differences of those in your study abroad country no longer exist. Suddenly, being the only other Americans isn’t enough to keep the friendship going, and doing everything together all day long while abroad becomes nothing more than the occasional catch-up over coffee.

There are multiple ways to approach this inevitable situation of friendships abroad vs. coming home. The first is to be increasingly selective with whom you choose to spend time with abroad, setting aside surface-level compatibility for truly deep connections. This may result in you not having the giant group of study abroad companions and only a few close friends, but it makes it more likely that you can maintain those relationships when you return home. It also may mean that you take more initiative to look outside your study abroad program, and try to befriend locals. Once you get over the cultural or linguistic differences that may seem daunting when you first arrive, you will probably find that there are people in your host country that you bond with far more than some of your fellow Americans.

The alternative is to simply enjoy these short-term friendships, or friendships of proximity, and accept that certain people are meant to exist in your life for a finite portion of time, and that the inevitable drifting apart when you return home does not discount the experiences you shared together, nor your nor their worth as a person. Of course, it is still a good idea to find at least a few people that you know you’ll stay in touch with past the program’s end date (especially because there’s nothing better than being able to reminisce about your study abroad program once you’ve come home). On the whole, though, more people pass in and out of one’s life than stay in it, and going abroad is about so much more than just amassing a group of friends. Often you may find that the local who kindly offered to show you around a village you were backpacking through will leave much more of a mark on your life than that guy in your program with your same major.

None of this is to say that you won’t make valuable friends abroad. But make sure that the golden glasses with which it is tempting to view your future experience don’t color the true gems of what it means to study abroad. As tempting as it is to crave the social-media curated version of studying abroad, with a twenty-person friend group traveling to a new city every weekend, commenting hearts and inside jokes on each other’s Instagrams, that version is not one that lasts. The true prize of study abroad is what it teaches you about yourself and the world, how it opens your heart to different cultures and points of view and challenges you to question your own beliefs. You learn independence, critical thinking, creativity, and resourcefulness. Most importantly, you learn to fall in love with both yourself and the world outside your door, little by little.

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