Blog by US Student Ambassador Delaney Coppola, Saint Joseph’s University Philadelphia, PA
The farthest I have gone from home was to a college two and a half hours away. Moving from Maryland to Philadelphia, I encountered some cultural changes. I began saying “water ice” instead of Italian ice and “hoagie” instead of sub sandwich, and grew an affinity for Wawa and Philly pretzels. Despite those changes, you probably would not be able to pick me out as a non-Philadelphian in the classroom by what I wore, said, or did. Even if you did notice, nobody would think much of it either way, as Maryland was not what you would consider exotic. Going to study at University College Cork (UCC) in Cork, Ireland, however, I knew that was going to change.
When I first arrived, I was kind of excited to be the odd one out. Speaking up in class or asking for help to find a building on campus always sparked conversation. The American accent always led to questions about why I was here and how I was liking the city, and of course a few comments about U.S. politics. Everyone seemed to notice my friends and me, and referred to us as their “American friends”. One of my goals before going abroad was to eventually feel like one of the locals and be able to blend in. But, at first, it was new and refreshing to be the unique, foreign (and slightly touristy) exchange student.
After being at school for a few weeks, I started to want to blend in and be just another student at UCC. I began to miss the easiness of the friend group I had had since my first year at college back in Philly. There, I could send a quick text and have someone to eat lunch with instead of circling the dining hall without recognizing a single face. I missed being able to run to the store at one in the morning to get some brownie mix; finding a store open near my new apartment past five in the evening proved to be a challenge. Even when trying to go to the grocery store, which used to be just about the easiest errand, I would get lost on the way there and back.
My friends from Cork finally broke it to me that they could spot an American from a mile away, from the North Face rain jacket, to the “wellies” (or rain boots) that no Irish people actually wore, to the pure volume of our voices. I was hit with the realization that I was not going to blend into any crowd while abroad and that maybe Cork would never feel truly like home. It felt like no matter what I wore, said, or did, I was going to be an American visiting for just a semester.
It was uncomfortable knowing that I would always stick out, no matter how hard I tried to fit in. I had never experienced this before. From not being able to get myself to the grocery store without using the GPS on my phone, to receiving UCC emails about student elections the following semester (when I would already be back in the U.S.), I was self-conscious. I felt out of place in what I thought was supposed to be my new home away from home. I talked less in class, tried to attract less attention while going out, and hung out with familiar faces instead of making new friends like I had been trying to do all semester.
One day, it hit me. I was not here because it was familiar. I was here to go out of my comfort zone. I was here to get to know myself better as I navigated the route to my classes, tried new foods I had never even heard of, and met people I had no common connections with. I was here, essentially, to be uncomfortable. I realized that I had to get used to this slightly uneasy feeling, and even embrace it. It was not a feeling of danger, where I felt unsafe; it was the feeling of leaving my comfort zone, which I had never forced myself to do for so long. I had pushed myself in smaller ways, such as trying new hobbies or going on weekly service trips, but had never sent myself into the unknown for six whole months.
I had to realize that things were going to be different. It is another country for goodness sake! Why had I thought I could (or should) blend in, especially in such a short time? So yes, it still was not easy to accept that I would not always see a familiar face in every class or day in the city, or that I was going to stick out wherever I went in my rain boots and North Face jacket. But, that is the beauty of going abroad, whether in college or at any point in life. I learned to be okay with leaving my comfort zone, being a little afraid of the unknown, and sticking out. I learned to be comfortable being uncomfortable.