Everything is not okay, and that’s okay.
I write this from my apartment in Avignon, France where I am on an exchange term from UVic.
Like the many first-year students who have just started at UVic, I too am in a new and unfamiliar environment. I too am overwhelmed with the procedures for course registration, obtaining my student card, paying my various fees, and participating in the never-ending campus activities. I too am trying to put on my bravest face for when I step outside so that I might make friends; friends who will help me feel a little less lost or who will at least reassure me that these feelings of doubt and isolation are shared amongst most new students.
For months people have been telling me things like “Oh you’re so lucky to be going to such a beautiful campus,” “Your experiences there will change your life,” and “I’m so jealous, can you fit me in your suitcase?”
It’s hard not to have grand expectations when you’re told just how fabulous your experience will be. But the thing about university/exchange that nobody tells you is how immensely challenging it is to leave your friends, family, and loved ones behind to start a grand adventure somewhere foreign.
Nobody tells you how stranded you will feel when you don’t speak the native language well enough to truly connect with anyone or to communicate your basic needs. Nobody tells you how hard it’s going to be to wake up every morning and know that you have one-hundred-something days left until you get to feel the comforting embrace of someone familiar. Nobody seems to recall that in order for something to be “life changing” you have to go through some really uncomfortable emotions, emotions that don’t go away overnight.
I’ve been in France for a little over a week now. In that time I’ve probably cried more times per day than I’ve eaten. I feel lonely, abandoned, and isolated from all other people. Of course on my social media accounts I’ve shared nothing but beautiful pictures of the quaint city I’m living in, with happy captions stating my excitement for my exchange experience. These snapshots of happiness are in no way fake, but they definitely paint a picture that hides the larger truth of my experiences so far. Why? Because nobody wants to read about my sadness on Instagram. Nobody wants to pity-“like” my depressing (but true) account of how I’m really feeling on Facebook.
Actually, knowing the people I’m friends with on Facebook, they probably would care (and your friends probably would too), but if you’re anything like me you conceal that version of yourself and disclose it selectively only to those closest to you. The online version of you is always beautiful, successful, happy. And there is nothing wrong with that. There is nothing wrong with painting a picture of your life that isn’t entirely true. That’s the fun–yet deceiving–thing about these social media accounts: you can be whoever you want to be. Whatever version of yourself that you want the world to see is the one that they believe.
The down-side to this phenomenon is that when you’re sad or struggling you feel alone in your doubts and worries. I get that. I am sharing my story with you in hopes that I can remind you that you’re not the only one hiding behind a happy photo or status. Keep in mind as you go through whatever it is you’re going through–first year of university, exchange term, moving to a new city, etc.–that even when you don’t see it, you’re not alone in your pain.
Maybe knowing that you’re not alone in your struggles isn’t at all helpful, but where people have struggled before you they have also succeeded and overcome obstacles before you. You’re next. You will make it through these next few months of loneliness, of learning a new language, of being away from home. So will I. You will make amazing friends and you will meet people who will make it all worthwhile. So will I. This time next year you will be the one telling those in your situation that “it’s a life-changing experience”. So will I.
Let’s give it a chance. Let’s get through this together.