Home is where the heart is

The beginning of May marks the end of another semester. People are cramming for finals, frantically packing up their apartments and cleaning out the fridges that have remnants of food long spoiled sitting in the back corners, and saying goodbye to friends for the summer. Seniors are waving goodbye to the last four years of their lives as they walk across the stage at graduation. For many students studying abroad, May marks the end of their semester in whatever country they called home and, while it’s bittersweet to leave a country you’ve spent the past five months getting to know, the thought of sleeping in your own bed and petting your dog and seeing your family is exciting and comforting.

For those of us in Buenos Aires, as well as many other programs with a funky timeline, our beginning of May looks a bit different. Because we arrived in Argentina at the end of February, we have a solid two months left before jetting back to the Northern hemisphere. Our classes are picking up, midterms are right around the corner, the weather is getting colder (it’s still 70 degrees though so I really can’t complain too much) and we’re watching from 6000 miles away as our friends are starting their summers. It’s also getting to be that point in our semester abroad where the excitement of being in a new place has started to wear off just a little bit. Successfully completing the hour long commute to class in the morning no longer brings the same sense of satisfaction, now it’s just a nuisance complete with crammed subway cars and, as of late, too much rain for anyone’s comfort. The lack of wifi in the entire city is no longer an excuse to sit and waste the afternoon away chatting with friends, but a roadblock to writing the Spanish paper due tomorrow. The city that was once filled with thousands of unexplored places still holds its secrets, but when Saturday rolls around it’s sometimes more tempting to spend the day in bed with netflix than to go out wandering around for hours on end with no final destination in mind.

As someone who’s had the opportunity to study abroad twice, I’ve noticed a common theme among exchange students and among programs: homesickness is not a subject that is discussed, because it is associated with a student being unhappy in their host country, or students perceive it as meaning they’re weak or not acclimating to their new life abroad. There’s an unspoken judgment for admitting that you’d rather be sitting on the terrace looking out over Lake Mendota than sitting in a cafe in your host city, for feeling a twinge of sadness when you see your friends celebrating a birthday or a special occasion and you’re 6000 miles away. But acclimating to a completely new and different way of living life is difficult, not seeing your family for five months is an adjustment if you’ve never gone that long without seeing them, being immersed in a foreign language, no matter how good you think you are at it, can feel isolating at some points.

I lived in Denmark for a year. I was 16, it was the first time I had left the country, the first time had lived away from home, the first time I had to navigate public transportation. Denmark was a year of many firsts, one of which was my first time feeling homesick. I distinctly remember a day where I got on the train going the opposite way I needed to go, and instead of going to school that day I got off the train and walked home, listening to whatever Coldplay song I knew would stir up my emotions, and cried because I missed the comfort of being somewhere where there weren’t trains I could get lost on. Once the tears started, I realized that I wasn’t just crying because I had missed the train: I was crying because I wasn’t with my family and I wouldn’t be for an entire year. I had no idea what I was doing, I was in a foreign country that I barely had heard of prior to arriving, I knew no one, and I was living in a house full of strangers. Eventually the bouts of homesickness became less and less frequent, aided partially by the fact that I figured out how to use the public transportation, but mainly because of the friends I made, my host families that quickly transformed from strangers to loved ones, and falling in love with Copenhagen. In Argentina, I haven’t felt homesick. I have been lucky enough to make very good friends very quickly, live with a wonderful host mom and her dog, and to have had the experience of living away from my family and friends in the past. I would be lying if I said that I don’t feel a twinge or two of jealousy looking at my friends back home having good times without me, or that I didn’t wish that my classes were over and summer was starting, but there has never been a moment where I sat down and thought “wow I wish I was in Wisconsin right now.”

I do recognize in many students here some of the dilemmas I had time and time again in Denmark: missing home and not wanting to admit it, missing friends but forcing themselves to forget about them by aggressively packing their schedule with excursions to different museums and cafes. But it’s not weak to admit you’re missing someone or somewhere. It doesn’t mean you’re not having the semester of your life studying abroad. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you’re not trying your hardest to get accustomed to the local culture, language, and way of life. There’s a stereotypical vision of a student studying abroad with the expectation that they’re happy, traveling all over the place, meeting a foreign love of their life, and making the best friends they’ve ever had. And while this is true for some people, this isn’t the day to day reality of living abroad for five months, not every day is going to be the best day of your life. And sometimes that fact gets lost in the narrative that exchange students paint on social media, with pictures from their trips and from nights out, always smiling. While this is the reality for a lot of students some of the time, it doesn’t show the nights they spend at home, or the mornings where the coffee has grounds in it and they’re late to class and they’re missing their mom.

Homesickness isn’t something to be ashamed of, nor is it indicative of a student not enjoying their time abroad or wishing they had chosen to stay home. Homesickness means a student is human, that they have emotions and relationships with people at home that they miss. It means that they’re trying their best but that sometimes they need someone to tell them to take a break, to spend an afternoon at home talking to their family or taking some time for themselves. Studying abroad is exhausting, mentally and physically, and it does no one any good to deny themselves the ability to acknowledge the challenges and work to overcome them instead of shoving them aside and moving forward.