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Wednesday, Dec 6, 2023

Sarah Says: I didn’t like my semester abroad

Content warning: this article contains mentions of physical violence. 

The night after I was mugged, I clipped my chin on the Canal Street pavement. 

We were heading home from one of our favorite pubs, slightly drunk, when one of my friends got the idea to give me a piggyback ride. Though I protested a little, these were new friends, study abroad friends, and I was still eager to make a good impression. So when my friend tripped, flinging me over her shoulders to stall her fall, I was not surprised that I hit the ground. 

In the days to come, I would treasure the scab on my chin. Bright and ugly, it was a physical representation of a wound that had left me without visible scars. 

At a school where over half of the junior class studies abroad, and studying abroad is the expectation, there can be immense pressure to put a good spin on your semester abroad.

If you asked me about my semester abroad, I would probably tell you I liked it. That I had never been to Europe, and I was so lucky to take advantage of the travel opportunities. I might mention my three and half weeks backpacking after my semester finished. And that, though the city was a little more provincial than I might otherwise prefer, it was a treat to study English at Trinity College Dublin, a country and a program which still values writers.  

Then, depending on how well I knew you, I would mention the mugging. At first, among friends and friends of friends, it was my elephant that followed me into any room. Not talking about what everyone already knew seemed more transparent than any recounting I could offer. 

But at some point, it became the only story I could tell. 

I know I will always remember that night. I will not remember the knock to the ground (there are some memories from which the mind protects) but the moment I realized someone was rooting in the pockets of my jacket and a pale, unfamiliar face looked down at me as I screamed for him to “Just take it. Take it.” I will remember how he broke off into the night. I will remember how the rush-hour crowd coalesced around me in aid as I screamed. 

More than anything, I remember returning back to my apartment, bloodied and torn, and deciding whether or not to hug the roommate who had blown me off for lunch. I accepted the hug, mostly because not doing so seemed enormously awkward, but also because anyone who loved me was at least an ocean away. These roommates, these new study-abroad friends, were all I had. 

While it’s tempting to attribute my unhappiness abroad to my mugging, long before my feet touched ground on Irish soil I suspected study abroad would be difficult. I am an anxious person who settles into new environments slowly, let alone new countries. Since I do not study a language at Middlebury and wanted both the cultural rush of a European city and intense academics, I chose to study at Trinity, an external program without any other MiddKids. 

By that February night of my mugging, I had lived in Dublin for exactly a month. While the ground under my feet was only beginning to settle, I knew the girls I spent my time with were only friends of circumstance, driven less by any font of real connection than a brutal instinct to survive the semester. 

In the following weeks, I walked the Dublin streets in a daze, past crying, but still jumping at all manner of shadows. In my retelling of the experience, I tend to attribute my unhappiness to the crude facts of the crime. The trauma lends a comforting narrative neatness to my misery. But since somewhere between Barcelona and Lisbon those study abroad girls and I fell out, and that had everything to do with our inherent, inevitable incompatibilities rather than my police incident report. 

Though my mugging looms over my semester, as resistant to extirpation as any stubborn  weed, I still think many of the aspects of Dublin I disliked would remain. Even without a mugging, I would miss a competent metro system, mourn the apparent absence of spice and seasoning, feel lost in the massive, impersonal classes, loathe the degree of feces I skirted on my walk to school and rue the infamous Irish gloominess. 

Maybe without the mugging, I would not be quite so bothered by my apartment’s location  — which some locals described to me as “the worst part of Dublin” — but I think under any circumstances it would have borne too close a resemblance to the rough neighborhoods of James Joyce’s Dubliners for my liking. 

Of course, there were good moments: the sweet fullness from a pint of Orchard Thieves, my awesome smallness before the Cliffs of Moher, the mist that hung above the island in a kind of magic before the plane touched down, how my neighborhood always smelled of the yeast from the nearby Guinness plant, so many nights with my voice raised in ebullient Irish song, the salt spray from Howth and Bray, how it felt to walk in the steps of so much history, and, most of all, my painful and glorious independence. 

Abroad, I learned to care for myself alone. While at Middlebury I often sandwich my hours with different friends, in Dublin I learned to spend long stretches of time alone and enjoy my company.  

I want to tell you I have drunk from the cup of life. That if I have been miserable at least it has been in the company of the clubs of Madrid and London, between the canals of Venice and the brisk waters of the Baltic Sea, and in the tradition of Ireland’s greatest writers who, after all, left Ireland, even as they remained bound to the island. 

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I want to tell you how I learned independence in the pre-dawn light of foreign airports and countries I walked alone. 

In short, I want to tell you that studying abroad was worth it. 

At some level, my desire to determine my time abroad as a net positive experience stems from Middlebury’s study abroad culture, but the impulse to avoid putting a bad face on an experience is just human. 

Before I studied abroad, I often questioned if I was making the “right” decision. As a member of the class of 2024, my previous semesters were shaped by Covid-19 and if most of my friends were not also studying abroad I probably would have chosen to stay at Middlebury. 

Yet my fall semester before going abroad was almost claustrophobic with restlessness. As I wandered home from parties and marathon sessions in Davis I felt stifled by so much sameness. My desire to be shaken up as forcefully as a snowglobe was so urgent that by the time the trees were heavy with December snow I was itching to leave even as I feared what lay before me. 

We know instinctively that the purpose of life is not to avoid pain. That, in fact, our growth is most fostered by the times that challenge us most. Yet, understandably, we flinch not just from pain, but from confronting when we were in pain as if we can retroactively provide a salve. 

So now when I talk about my semester abroad, I account for my hurt, my learning and my growth without attempting to balance the score. 

And, I still encourage students to study abroad because I cannot imagine who I would be otherwise if I did not hop on that plane without knowing what came next.

Sarah Miller

Sarah Miller '24 (she/her) is an Editor at Large.   

She previously served as Opinions Editor and Staff Writer. Miller is an English major on the Creative Writing track. She hails from Philadelphia and spent the spring studying English at Trinity College Dublin. She has interned for The New England Review and hosts a WRMC radio show where you can still listen to her many opinions.