Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 10, 2021

Letting go of study abroad and other “perfect” college experiences

By SOPHIA LOLA | April 24, 2021

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COURTESY OF SOPHIA LOLA For her birthday, Lola and her friends celebrated with a Scottish theme.

I turned 21 about a month ago. While it wasn’t the absolute rager my pre-pandemic self envisioned, I had so much fun. My friends and I sat outside with takeout from One World, popped a bottle of champagne my parents had given me, and then it was time for cake.

All of a sudden, bagpipe music was playing from someone’s phone, and my friend Caroline was tossing me a square of plaid fabric, telling me to wrap it around me like a skirt. The rest of them were already doing the same with their own pieces of fabric, so I did as I was told with very little idea of what was happening.

“We’re bringing you Scotland!” My friend Sara then removed the foil from the top of the cake pan, revealing a beautiful chocolate cake frosted to look like the Scottish flag. There was a fondant Nessie on top for an added cute touch.

That’s when it finally clicked: They were doing this because I was supposed to be in Scotland this semester. Or last semester, originally. I think we all know the reason why that didn’t actually end up happening, though...

Just another thing the pandemic has taken away (obviously a minor one compared to the loss of millions of lives and livelihoods).

Though the pandemic has given me (and others) much greater hardships than this, I think the loss of study abroad was the biggest, most specific disappointment of the pandemic for me; it was probably the thing I was most excited to do in college, the only thing I always felt absolutely certain I would do while here, even before I decided on my major.

Last summer, when study abroad was canceled for the fall, it was a big disruption to go from planning a semester on the other side of the world to not even knowing if it would be safe for me to return to Baltimore (I did end up coming back and thank god for that).

Scotland was something I had been dreaming about since freshman spring, when I ran into a classmate from Introduction to Fiction and Poetry in Brody Café one day and talked with him about our plans for the rest of college, specifically for going abroad. I had already been thinking a lot about the U.K., but he was the one who told me about the University’s partnership with St. Andrews in Scotland. He said it would be easy for me to transfer credits back to my Writing Seminars major here. I looked up pictures online, and I was sold — it looked like it was straight out of a fairytale. 

For a year I quietly held on to a vision of myself walking along the beach in St. Andrews. Knowing I needed a certain GPA to be eligible for the program was one of the main things that got me through a rough sophomore fall. And then it was sophomore spring, finally time to apply for junior fall.

I’m pretty sure I finished my application before we got sent home, but the pandemic’s first wave was in full swing by the time I got the notification of my acceptance. Even during my initial excitement about having been accepted, there was a tiny, sobering thought in the back of my mind: The pandemic may not actually be over by then. This may not happen.

And it didn’t. After months of deliberating, the study abroad office made the right call and canceled programs for the fall. They told me I could easily defer to the spring — I would just have to revive the same application and get reapproved. 

That was initially my plan, but as the summer and the fall went on and the pandemic got worse, I realized I wanted to be here in the spring, when things would hopefully be just a little more normal. Spring still didn’t feel like the right time to go abroad. So I didn’t revive my application, and the Study Abroad Office wound up canceling programs for this semester too, anyway.

I used to think about the disappointment of not going abroad a lot more often. And there have been a lot of other disappointing and hard parts of my college experience this year (and everyone else’s), like not going to in-person class and being stuck on Zoom all the time, having to social distance from many of my friends, and not getting to experience The News-Letter from the janky but cozy Gatehouse and many more.

We’re never going to get this lost time back, but it also won’t feel like such a gaping hole forever.

Maybe I’m just reading into things too much, but I think it’s a good sign that it took me so long to realize that the cake, kilts and bagpipe music on my birthday were an homage to my missed abroad experience. It was a sign that I’m not so stuck on that disappointment anymore.

And I already kind of knew that, because there came a point when the idea of being abroad instead of here in the U.S. in the middle of a pandemic started to feel super dissonant and jarring (though maybe it’s a little sad how normal the pandemic has started to feel).

But it was nice that it didn’t spark a feeling of regret when my friends brought all that stuff out — it just felt like an inside joke about something that could’ve happened at one point but that I’ve actually been just fine without. I wouldn’t call this past year a good one — the widespread devastation of the pandemic alone prevents me from doing so, along with some other things. 

But there have been good things that have happened, things that very well may not have happened had I gone abroad: I found a relationship. I signed a lease for next year with one of my best friends. I got to be around for all my friends’ birthdays. I’ve been Magazine Editor for The News-Letter. I started working with a nonprofit that I really love. So many other little things. 

Now that those have all happened, it’s impossible to say I would’ve been better off without them if I had only been able to go abroad. Because I just don’t know If that’s true. And why would I choose to focus on a hypothetical over all the concrete good I’m lucky enough to have right now?

Sophia Lola is a junior from Brooklyn, N.Y. majoring in Writing Seminars. She is a Magazine Editor for The News-Letter. Her column explores personal growth, whether it comes an inch or a mile at a time.

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