Suitcases: The post-abroad ennui

A plane divides the scene: three students look out to a view of city lights on the top, while at the bottom is a student studying in black and white.
(Gabi Seifert • The Student Life)

On a chilly Thursday evening this January, a few dozen Scripps College juniors gathered in the Hampton Room, a carpeted event space perched above Malott Dining Commons. Each received an envelope upon entry with a canary yellow door tag inside. The tags were inscribed with the words, “I studied in (insert country here)!” and a stereotyped graphic to match — a flamenco dancer, a rippling flag.

The mood in the line for assorted cheeses and bite-sized cakes was glum and tiresome, a futile struggle to find excitement. This mood lingered despite the warmhearted efforts of the study abroad office staff to create a bright event for juniors returning to campus from their decidedly more stimulating jaunts abroad. 

The unfortunate fact is that returning from a semester abroad is often akin to slipping into the life of a familiar stranger. Nothing seems to entirely fit together, but it fits well enough to shrug and move on.

Sifting through the contents of my storage unit, unopened since I left campus last May, was similar to unearthing a time capsule from many years ago. I recognized the girl smiling in the carefully stacked polaroids as myself, red cup in hand, palpable excitement in her eyebrows about who she might see at the party later — yet I felt I had lived many years since that hasty vodka lemonade.

In conversations with other juniors in Claremont, back from Amsterdam, Galway or Beirut, there is a clear duality to the post-abroad sentiment, a bittersweet sense of both loss and gain. There is the loss of place — that rare bagel shop in Barcelona, that underground nightclub in Havana — and the loss of friends made while abroad, sandwiched together with the reward of cherished memories, fresh confidence and awareness.

Unfortunately, the knowledge gained in London is not a mirror image of the knowledge gained in Buenos Aires. This can lead to a new distance between close friends who spent months having entirely disparate experiences, as well as mental loneliness, derived from the inability to secure comfort and solidarity from friends who have never visited the city you came to love.

Friends here in Claremont who once anticipated and appreciated every comment and reference, now comprehend a visibly uncomfortable, smaller percentage. A new language of phrases, histories and places now peppers my thoughts, none of which my Claremont friends are able to understand — and each of them with their own new vocabulary as well.

As I write this, several hundred juniors mill about the 5Cs, attempting to make something worn and mundane into something new and exciting again. It is clear from my conversations with juniors and seniors that for some 5C students, going abroad leads to discontentment with life at the colleges, specifically the small-town atmosphere. During a conversation about post-abroad sentiments, a senior commented, “I’ve thought about moving to Granada so many times in the past year.”

Side effects of the post-abroad ennui include dining hall displeasure (where’s the kimchi?), boredom at parties and other social functions (where’s the reggaetón?), premature senior angst upon discovering that unlike in other parts of the world, at 20 years old, you cannot go into a bar and order a drink to take the edge off the aforementioned loneliness (bad habits, kids!).

To a student still jet-lagged from four months in Prague or St. Petersburg, waiting in line at a dining hall, living in a dorm and attending college parties may have the same slightly comical effect as a 12-year-old riding a tricycle.

One junior claimed that after coming back from Europe, she feels less pressure to go out on the weekends and instead is perfectly content staying in with friends. She knows that Long Tall Glasses or Groove at the Grove will not be as rousing as the tequila-filled clubs she frequented a few short months ago, so she stays home.

However, another junior divulged a heightened desire to go out this semester — a desperate search for a lost feeling that ends in grumbling disappointment in line at The Hub at 1 a.m.

It is fitting that the Scripps study abroad office advertised post-abroad support groups. This discontentment with life at the 5Cs is often whispered, rather than shouted, perhaps due to guilt. Not everyone has the opportunity to study in Claremont, and not everyone in Claremont has the opportunity to go abroad, so why whine about the fruits of our luck?

Without going abroad, would college continue to feel thrilling and entirely appropriate until graduation, or would the junior and senior years still be very different from the first two years? The answer to this, of course, is individual and personal, but maybe this disjointed gloom is merely a product of growing up. 

As college becomes a familiar state, rather than a new one, its charms inevitably fade, and members of the junior and senior classes toil to find something novel and a valid sense of identity in a decaying situation.

While this is not perhaps the easiest time for some of our juniors, it is somewhat comforting to remember that life is cyclical, and just a year from now, we will likely be experiencing the same warm, sorrowful feelings about leaving college, our graduation goggles working their magic, overlooking these moments of jaded disappointment.

Lillian Perlmutter SC ’21 is a guest writer who is a politics and foreign languages dual major. In addition to writing social commentary, she makes disappointing latte art at The Motley Coffeehouse. 

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