The Oberlin Stories Project

On study abroad

Caitlin O'Neill ’11

“Even though there were days when I missed my family and friends so much that it hurt, days when I thought that another rainy day would drive me up the wall, I would not trade my experience for the world.”

Two people sitting on the floor

Studying abroad is one big walking cliché, right? How many times have we heard the old story: Girl goes to college; girl has good time, but girl thinks something is missing; girl leaves behind everything to go to some totally unfamiliar country with no friends and no money; girl makes a bunch of new friends; girl grows up; girl learns life lesson; girl comes home.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I heard it all the time. In fact, when I was a prospie on the Multicultural Visit Program, one of the admissions officers was determined to dazzle us with impressive numbers and facts like “(insert ridiculous number here) of students study abroad during their four or five years at Oberlin!” While the other prospective students were thoroughly impressed and foaming at the mouth thinking of “Oh, the places they’d go!” I blanched at the suggestion. Me, study abroad? Never in a million years.

For a long time, I told myself that my refusal was based on my unwillingness to grow up to be some cliché statistic. Truthfully, I was terrified. I couldn’t imagine (or maybe I imagined all too well) living for months across one of these extremely large oceans, far from my family and my friends, in some place where I couldn’t understand the language, living utterly alone scrounging for food and toilet paper because my financial aid check got lost on the way to my study abroad imagination land.

Worst of all, after having the year from hell I was supposed to tell everyone that I loved it. I was supposed to come back a disciple, shouting out praises for studying abroad at the top of my lungs. I decided right then and there that no one, no one I tell you, would ever catch me dead in a study abroad program.

Fortunately, I had underestimated a worthy adversary in the pro study-away camp, African-American studies professor Meredith Gadsby, someone who had (and still has) a great deal of influence over my life for a number of reasons. Please believe me when I tell you that this woman could sell you ocean-front property in a landlocked state and you would thank her for it. She also has an uncanny ability to sell the most unwilling students on the prospect of studying abroad with her, Professor Baron Pineda from the anthropology department, and 14 other lucky students in the exotic and faraway land of London, England.

After applying and being accepted into the Oberlin-in-London program, I felt honored and excited, but slightly dismayed by the knowledge that I had been swindled, and would work diligently to help swindle other doubting Obies into applying, despite all my previous protestations. Less than three months later, with this knowledge oh so heavy on my heart, I was on a nonstop Virgin Atlantic flight to London’s Heathrow airport.

Now, at this point, you think that the story must go one of two ways: either she goes and has the time of her life, loving every last second, or she goes and regrets every last day spent across the pond.

If you guessed A or B, you’re wrong. I didn’t have the time of my life, but I definitely had a blast. Even though there were days when I thought I was crazy for leaving, days when I missed my family and friends so much that it hurt, days when I thought that another rainy day would drive me up the wall, and days when I thought that my May 12 fly-out date could not come soon enough, I would not trade my experience for the world. Really.

The Oberlin-in-London Program turned out to be much better than I ever could have expected. Even though we were miles away from home, we were with friends and other familiar faces, we already spoke the language, our classes were intellectually engaging and fun, our financial aid checks did not get lost in the mail, and we only occasionally ran out of toilet paper.

One assessment that I was correct in making is that studying abroad is, and remains, a terrifying experience. There’s something very scary but undoubtedly electrifying about change. Waking up to the possibility that anything could happen today can be initially paralyzing. But in the end, all that possibility is completely rewarding. I had the opportunity to meet some pretty amazing people: James Earl Jones after a show, stage actress Jenny Jules in our very own classroom, our beautiful program director Donna Vinter, and our favorite downstairs neighbor Patrick Oke; visit some pretty amazing places like Liverpool, Brighton, Bath, Geneva, and Dublin; and survive some pretty harrowing experiences like almost getting hit by a double-decker bus (twice).

Besides, all the fear, change, and unending possibility can really teach you some things about yourself and others. I learned a great deal about myself, about my strengths, weaknesses, and pet peeves. I learned that I am ridiculously forgiving but not as patient as I should be. I’m not afraid to make a fool of myself–repeatedly. I like going out almost as much as I like staying in. I’m a terrible cook. I’m bad at crossing city streets. I’ve got the heart of a child and a mind working overtime. I’m unfailingly honest (mostly), and I will laugh mercilessly at anything.

Yet most importantly, I learned that I’m a good person who enjoys the company of other good people, and that I can take care of myself, but I would prefer not to travel this world alone. I now know that I deserve all that I can get in this life and the next. When I leave Oberlin, many good things will be coming my way.

I can’t wait to go back to Oberlin for my final year with all this new breadth of knowledge and life experience under my belt. I can’t wait to see just how far I’ve come in the few months that felt like a few lifetimes. When I think back on my semester in London, suddenly my future after Oberlin doesn’t seem quite as scary as it used to. I know now that even when I’m not debating in a class in King, or working through the stacks at Mudd, I’ll be able to apply that same kind of fervor to my everyday life. After London 2010, every fair, every market, and every personal interaction is an opportunity to learn something new. I’ve made the world my classroom.

Come Fall 2010, I’ll be preaching the Oberlin-in-London gospel to anyone who will listen. I hope that those of you who are, like I was, afraid of studying away will take a page out of my book and “just do it!” For those of you who were already planning on studying abroad, there’s only one thing you need take away from this story: look both ways before crossing the street, it will add valuable years to your life.