What If… You left Evanston for a year?

Emma Haak

The abroad experience for most Northwestern students goes something like this. Spend two or three months living it up like a combination local/expat/tourist, then return to the States, glad to be partying like a college student again (as if the college habits hadn’t continued abroad), and then spend the days talking about “the culture” and “my ex-boyfriend-he’s a local” as reasons to return after graduation. But when the students staying three-to-five months abroad jump on the plane home, a small minority has the guts to stay behind.

This past school year, of the 701 students who went abroad, just 38, or 5.4 percent, participated in full-year programs, says Alicia Stanley, associate director of NU’s study abroad office. And those extra couple months made all the difference in the world to many of them when it came to immersing themselves in the local culture-and when it came to returning to their daily American lives.

After an entire year spent adopting a foreign lifestyle, re-entering American culture was jarring for Mary Dwyer, a Weinberg senior who spent the year in London, who says she had a major case of reverse culture shock. “It took me a while to really feel like I was home,” she says. “When I got back I was converting everything into pounds, looking the wrong direction at crosswalks, and asking for ‘take away’ instead of carry out.” The transition also was difficult for Weinberg senior Sirisha Yadlapati. “I had fully embraced Barcelona,” she says. “So I was really sad for a really long time. They prioritize family and life over work. Things there were much less stressful than they are here.”

When on a different continent, friendships sometimes feel the strain. Staying in touch on Skype helped Dwyer ensure that her friends back home didn’t feel separate from her England life, but most didn’t understand why she would leave Evanston for a whole year, though they eventually came around. “They were supportive, but angry at the same time,” she says.

“I knew my friends would still be here when I got back,” says John Lee, a senior linguistics major who studied in Paris. Despite occasional instant messaging chats, Lee admits he heard what happened among friends while he was gone only once he’d come back. “I realized that their lives had gone on without me,” he says. But Lee’s friends had missed out, too. They didn’t stand on strike last spring with other French university students and blockade the school’s entrances, and they didn’t spend weekends jetting around Europe without worrying about missing valuable time in the City of Light, both of which Lee did. “I got to see the seasons change in Paris, meet more people, and after adjusting to the different learning style, being in class was a bit easier in the second semester,” he says. “The fall students were just starting to settle in when they had to leave. If I had left then, I would have had a totally different reflection on my time abroad.”