There and Back Again: Finding Yourself Abroad

Every night, I sit in a circle with sixteen teenage girls. They are capable, funny and spirited. They—like many young people—are exploring the boundaries of their own infinity, teetering on the edge of self-doubt in their adventures in the world. I look around; in their young faces, I am reminded that there is not much difference between us. Just like these women, I left home at the age of sixteen and followed a hunch that sent me abroad to Europe. Just like them, I felt a lot stronger in my willowy frame because of that journey.

Almost ten years ago, I flew away on my first big adventure abroad. I attended a summer program for high school students in Oxford, England. I craved something—anything—that contrasted life in my hometown. And at sixteen, I loved English gardens, tea, British literature and (more so than anything) the serenity of my own independence. Oxford was an easy choice. Flying over the ocean to Heathrow Airport brought a vast feeling of relief. I was on my own, but I didn’t feel like it. I was aligned with something greater: something that brought me not just to a new city, but to a larger journey that would take me to many places, and to a sense of peace within myself.


 

I grew up outside of New York City in a small suburban hamlet. The City was a pulsating thing, too big to live without, but far enough away to not impact my daily life. As a teenager, I felt increasingly clouded by a community that embodied the competitiveness of New York within the insulated bubble of a small town. My particular community was preppy and elevated, with a beautiful town green, great schools and—if I’m counting correctly—six country clubs. Almost everyone worked in finance. As a young person, the expectation of world domination was audible in even positive terms like “balance,” which meant success at everything.

My notion of ‘perfect’ had always fit like a pair of jeans one size too small. I sucked myself in and buttoned tightly, subtly pinched by a wincing feeling of self-constriction. It was like one of those mohair sacks ascetic monks wore in the Middle Ages; freakishly routine, I did not realize how uncomfortable I felt until I let it go. For me, this tightening strain meant striving for a specific and unattainable ideal: effortless beauty, combined with quiet academic success, social fluency and easy perfection. In my daily life, I tiptoed on a pedestal too small for my feet, chastising myself for not being able to balance on a space the size of a needle. I waited for society to reward my pained smile with a college acceptance letter and the ultimate approval of those I thought to be better than me. But as I looked at Oxford’s towering spires, my expectations evaporated like steam rising from a cup of tea, awakened by the reality that I could live in a place where such perfection was irrelevant.


 

Living in Oxford reset my psyche the same way that it reset my internal clock—organically and over time. Studying in an ancient university town filled my days with the unique opportunity to live a life that aligned with what I loved. I subtly recognized the echoes of my contentment as I slipped into a very natural habitat. Instead of cowering under my identity as a wallflower, I felt warmly observant. Instead of watering down my beliefs, I gravitated towards my truth. The aspects of my character that did not fit into the cookie cutter of my hometown found the light of day abroad. And instead of falling off the pedestal I teetered on at home, I leapt off with a flourish.

Before that summer, I thought that veering from the golden pedestal of overachievement meant that I would tank. I would be one of those people whose self-esteem fell below sea level and who never reached the bare minimum required for society’s approval. I would have to live with my parents forever; I would have no friends; I would have to be alone. In real life, following my own path meant that I thrived from a place of self-appreciation, rather than fear. Immersing myself in an ancient university town reminded me that education was about growth and learning, not about SAT scores. Instead of spending hours biting my lip and erasing sentences, I wrote papers for my classes in an Internet café with speed and gusto. The sense of enthusiasm for my experiences—in class and outside of it—broke my perfectionist tendencies and replaced them with an enjoyment and trust in my own potential.

It ends up that my flourishing intellectual curiosity carried me farther than the jaw-locked studying sessions of my junior year. I brought eloquence to my classes, made amazing friends, and fell for an intelligent guy. Oxford was my first love. Not because of the classes, the boy, or the spiraled buildings, but because, there, I realized who I was, and I liked myself—or even loved myself—for the first time since childhood.

Not only did Oxford leave me with a full plate of self-esteem, it set me in a path that aligned with my own nature rather than the expectations of others. Because of that time, my deep love of travel and cultural immersion grew like weeds; I never tried to stamp them out. If Oxford was my first love, I have had a bouquet of romances since then. I lived in Scotland, France and Nantucket (which native islanders consider to be its own nation out at sea). In crafting my own adventures to and through these places, my idea of home stretched beyond the zip code of my hometown towards the cultivation of a life that felt true to my bones.


 

Four years ago, I made a leap that reflected that growing faith in my own instincts. I flew abroad again, knowing that I needed to be on my own in the world, in a place that I loved. I went to France, without a work visa or a place to live, and found my way. After teaching English, I took a job as a Resident Advisor in the same company that sponsored my trip to Oxford. I have worked on their campus in Nice, France for three summers now, mentoring forty-five young women on their first solo adventures abroad. There, I look out at the magnificent Côte d’Azur and towards the faces of young people who mirror the beautiful unfolding that occurs outside of our comfort zones.

Each time I return to Nice, I crack open again in the Mediterranean light. The flavors of the city heighten my appreciation for the magic of spontaneity and the joy of living somewhere else. I eat croissants, not scones, and dark chocolate instead of Cadbury; but the feeling in each bite reminds me of Oxford. I am home—not because of where I am—but because of the freedom I feel to be myself. I realize that my joy is connected, not necessarily to a specific location, but to a way of being that I can easily cultivate abroad. With gratitude, I witness the parallel paths of the girls I mentor every day, as they arrive closer to their truths in an environment that stirs their souls.

Away from everything they know, these young women plop themselves in a new stew, simmering in an unrecognizable combination of independence and uncertainty. They come to see themselves—and any bubbles they may have lived in at home—from the outside. Like the sun rising, this process illuminates what they cherish about home and what they adore about living in the big wide world. Different places call different parts of them to the surface; and in these diverse experiences, they fill out, like sculptures rounding into form.

In leaving our physical homes and immersing in a different culture, we come home to ourselves in new ways. We delve deeper than the realities of our inherited circumstances, finding out who we are across cultural lines. By exploring the world with these new eyes, we not only see what’s around us with greater clarity, we see ourselves in a fresh light. For me, this continued adventure is more important than any one place. In this dance of becoming who I am, I find home within myself, recognizing that the beauty of this experience will continue to grow with each step of my journey.