Oberlin Blogs

Self-Care Abroad

November 24, 2015

Esther Espeland ’17

I feel like a lot of students studying abroad don't talk about sadness and struggle openly, because a semester abroad is usually hyped up to be a magical time when college students are consistently happy and having incredible new experiences. Before I left for Buenos Aires, I heard many times "you'll have the best time of your life", and would even tell myself that.

And a lot of that is true. I've done so many joyous, new things in Argentina. I've frolicked in the Andes Mountains. I got a beautiful tattoo on the center of my back, much to the shock of my parents. I've shed happy tears at a tango club, overwhelmed by the beauty of live tango music.

However, outside of all the goodness I've thus far experienced, "having the best time of my life" is a lot of pressure considering the past 6-10 months in the Narrative of Esther have not been my best. Since last semester and through summer I've had some not good things happen to me and have been in a continual process of healing and having feelings, which (out of necessity) didn't stop once I started studying in Argentina.

To add to this, a truly horrible thing recently happened: a high school friend and beloved member of my hometown community was murdered due to gun violence. While so far away in Argentina, I've never found myself wishing to be home so badly.

This tragedy occurred at the start of my month-long finals period so I've been sad and stressed beyond belief, alternating crying with researching my paper topics. But bizarrely, as justified as my sadness is, I'm uncomfortable admitting it because of the pressure to be having a perfect time abroad. Even writing this blog post is difficult for me.

So here are some things I've been reminding myself:

1) It's okay to be sad. Everyone gets sad sometimes, some people for longer periods than others. I'm not someone who's had clinical depression, so I can't understand what that must feel like, but I have had a "series of unfortunate events" (I can't think of another way to rephrase this, so bear with me) that have caused me grief, anxiety, anger, and other not-fun feels over a longer period of time.

2) Studying abroad doesn't have to be the best time of your life. Moving to Argentina has been a wonderful, imperfect, formative experience, but doesn't erase the personal problems I've been struggling with--I could be anywhere in the world right now, and that wouldn't change what's been going on outside of school.

3) It's okay to miss home/Oberlin, even when you're in a fabulous new place.

4) If you feel sad, that doesn't mean you've missed your shot at having a meaningful abroad experience. This is something I've been really worried about--being too worn down to go to exciting museums/concerts/cultural activities. Practicing self-care, such as staying home on a Friday night to Skype your parents, doesn't mean you are missing chances to go on new adventures. It means that when you do try lovely new things you can appreciate them more deeply and meaningfully.

I've also found support in some pretty surprising ways. One of my program directors overheard my conversation about my friend's death (I was a mess in the computer lab), and immediately took me into his office. After forbidding me from going to class that day, he gave me a big hug, poured me a glass of water, and offered his full support, including extensions on all my assignments, and the number of a free counselor. And that really made a huge difference, so thank you, Juan. :)

He also told me that, from his observations of American culture, we continue to push ourselves, even when we don't feel well physically or mentally, and that for us, needing time to heal is a sign of weakness. This feels true for me at Oberlin, where I definitely feel the pressure to power through and keep up with our commitments despite any ongoing mental or physical health problems.

When Argentines are sick, they go to the doctor, even when it's just a cold (which we Americans tend to trivialize, but colds can really suck). Instead of downing DayQuil and powering through the work/school week as if nothing is wrong, porteños take the time they need to get better. I found this so weird at first because forgoing my engagements to heal isn't something I've been conditioned to do. However, letting myself be sad when I'm sad and actually staying in bed when sick has helped me feel better faster and let me enjoy more of my time here.

Experiencing the cultural differences in Argentina has definitely shaped my return to Oberlin and how I plan to continue caring for myself. Since learning to tango (my first time dancing) has been one of the highlights of my time here, I registered for a dance class next semester. I also scheduled only late-morning and afternoon classes for second semester, as I know I will need to prioritize sleep, and have already turned down several tempting commitments. Additionally, as much I would love to not spend January in Chicago, I chose a winter term project that I could fulfill at home--a sexual health related internship--giving me time to be with my parents and home friends and check in with a therapist.

Although it's been stressful at times to be in a new place, far away from my routine and support system, Argentina has given me a new perspective on self-care. New friends, new family, cultural and intellectual experiences impossible in the States, better Spanish, and finally, finding strength in acknowledging periods of weakness: I have so much to take home with me.

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