To Senegal and Back: Musings on Returning From Abroad

Editor’s Note: As you may have noticed last semester, we tried to diversify the international perspectives showcased in TSL by alternating between columns written by Claremont students studying abroad and international students at the colleges. We have decided to move away from this informal effort and create a regular space for the column, named “International Spaces,” in the Life and Style pages. Here, we hope to give students an opportunity to offer critical observations and musings about the complex experience of meshing cultures that accompanies traveling and living abroad. We might all learn a little something. 

For many members of the junior class, study abroad is over. We’re back, which means it’s time for everyone else in the junior class to ask that ubiquitous question, “So, how was it?” 

Though I could fill this column with my experiences in the many months that have passed since I set off for Dakar, Senegal, last August, I want to discuss the collective experience of return. (For details about my semester, you can always read my blog at waitshitactuallyIdidntblogatall.wordpress.com.)

Specifically, I am interested in what we talk about when we talk about abroad — how, in these first few weeks back on campus, students pose and receive that “How was it?” question. 

I myself have been pretty awkward about answering this totally innocuous question, which is frequently no more than a passing remark, like “How is the main-line dish?” Of course I want people to ask me how it was — I want my classmates to have missed me and to take interest in my experiences. But there is also so much build-up surrounding this particular semester, not to mention ambiguity, that I don’t feel I have, or should have, an easy answer. Besides, who wants to launch into or listen to a rant? These conversations can so easily collapse into monologue. 

The final days of my program included a talk about re-entry, in which we discussed the socially appropriate parameters to frame our rambling disclosures. My program director described the three main interactions we would face back in the States: the 30-second résumé, the 30-minute chat, and the candid three-hour heart-to-heart. I’ve found these delineations to be accurate. I’ve also found that the people with whom I engage deeply and the friends who are satisfied with a few words are not always the ones I had expected. 

Asking about someone’s semester abroad is different from asking about her family vacation or her spring break. Study abroad is a serious and confusing matter that passes under the guise of a normal semester, when in reality it is not so clear-cut. You go, you live your life somewhere else, and then you come back. Many of us lived large portions of our lives in a different language, necessitating a further layer of translation in our descriptions. I’m not sure quite what to make of this fall, let alone what to tell a friend about it. I think any returnee would be hard-pressed to articulate exactly how it was. The semester is a bit like college, condensed — we head off with hopes and dreams of who we’d like to be when we come back. 

So, what should we say? What would you like to hear? Too much honesty in a passing remark would be strange, but too little can be just as uncomfortable — it’s obvious when someone’s holding back. I think we’re learning here to be articulate, but at least for the moment, our responses remain as imperfect as we are. 

There might be more behind this seemingly simple question. To me, at least, there’s something vaguely imperialistic about giving another country a quick thumbs up or thumbs down: “Senegal, yeah, A+ country!” Willingly or unwillingly, it seems, we become ambassadors of something much larger than ourselves. We can only offer the most subjective information, fading memories, narratives, and hasty conclusions.

Perhaps my visceral reaction to the question comes from my hesitation to truly pose it to myself. Maybe now, post-adventure, it’s time for some slow analysis. How was it? What just happened, really? These are probably good questions to ask after any semester — beneficial to that construction of self, or reconciliation of selves, or however you imagine yourself moving through the world.

Yet it is most likely that the questioner is only being nice, and these comments translate more or less to “Welcome back.” And I do feel absolutely welcome in this place where people care enough to stop and ask me how (or where) I’ve been. Sure, there is an odd period of re-adjustment, made only stranger by how quickly it dissolves back into the “normal” flow of campus life. So, juniors, how is it going? This is a topic we can broach together.

Back from wherever it is we were, we might want to ask some other questions, too — questions about our school and schooling. What are the assets, but also the implications, of Claremont students traversing the globe? What happened while we were away? (Besides the government shutdown … that was embarrassing.) Where are the students here who, when asked if they went abroad, would say they are abroad right now? In general, who studies abroad, who doesn’t, and why does it work out this way? And, my favorite to contemplate: What are we all going to do next?

Claire Pershan PO ’15 is studying English and French. Pershan, who hails from New Haven, Connecticut, just returned from studying abroad in Dakar, Senegal, where tuition is free. 

If you or someone you know would like to write for International Spaces, email lifeandstyle@tsl.pomona.edu. 

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