Pursuing independence abroad in a pandemic
I was thrilled to have solidified my University plans for the fall and excitedly told my friends in our group chat. The first reaction I got from everyone was a collective declaration that I had clearly gone insane.
Not only was I planning to go across the country —from California to Massachusetts — I was going to start my college journey even further away. I was admitted to Brandeis as a midyear student, so I wasn't going to be on campus in Waltham during the fall semester. I chose to spend that semester participating in a Brandeis midyear program in London with other midyear students. The distance between San Francisco International and London’s Heathrow Airport alone was enough to make my friends question what I was getting myself into … Not to mention the global pandemic that was (and is) still prevalent.
I wasn't completely sure of my sanity, to be fair. Studying abroad, during a pandemic, for my first ever semester, sounded like a recipe for either a brilliant coming-of-age film or an apocalyptic nightmare thriller.
Spoiler alert: the whole experience was amazing, and luckily it felt much more like the former cinematic option than the latter. I made friends and roamed the city and its surroundings, which were reachable by train. Additionally, I got the chance to visit the world's largest botanical gardens, various museums, Stonehenge, and even spent a whirlwind 48 hours or so in Paris during our reading week break. Put simply, I had a great time adventuring through a couple countries I had never visited before.
Fortunately, London was quite available for us to explore. During the majority of my time there, most venues were open and running, albeit with suggested masks, mandatory vaccination checks, and hand sanitizer stations everywhere. We got to have in-person classes while taking lateral flow tests twice a week. At the end of the semester, I found I could count the total number of people I knew of who had caught COVID-19 during our time in the United Kingdom on one hand.
Overall, I found the level of safety in London was in stark contrast to the United States, where most places near me were either shut down or operating at a very minimal capacity. Friends shared food and sat close to each other without having to worry if a quick hug would mean two weeks of solitary quarantine. I rejoiced in being able to visit crowded places again. It was amazing, if strangely disconcerting, to enter a (live!) concert and see people clustered around the artist, loudly singing and drinking.
Drinking, of course, was the other thing — there, people are allowed to purchase alcohol at 18. While I personally didn't partake, it helped me shift my mindset and feel more independent, as did the experience of studying abroad as a whole. I had always thought of drinking as something “adults” did, like an untouchable barrier between the kid and adult tables at Thanksgiving. The simple act of having access to alcohol, even if I personally didn't drink, made me feel like I had passed some invisible adult milestone, and the world was now fully in my grasp. In London, I was able to feel like an independent adult for the first time. I was in charge of everything from getting from my dorm to classes in the morning, to figuring out what to eat for dinner and where to get it, and everything else in between.
My parents, extended family, and the grand majority of anyone I knew prior to getting on the plane out of San Francisco, were an ocean away from me. To some, that may sound nerve-wracking, and on some levels it was. Due to the massive time difference and distance, I knew I would have to figure out any problematic situation on my own.
However, after spending months of quarantine cooped up in the house with my parents, I was desperate to build the teenage experiences I missed out on due to COVID-19. I fully believe that desperation to get out of my childhood home and into the wider world fueled my decision to take the study abroad opportunity I had been presented with, despite the circumstances surrounding it. Everything felt incredibly unfamiliar, unpredictable, and full of untapped potential. Instead of being scared, I was beyond excited to have a proper adventure of my own.
Reflecting on the experience, I certainly got my adventures, though I ended up leaving a week earlier than expected (and far earlier than I would have liked to, if given the chance) due to the Omicron variant beginning to spike, and I came home to everything closing again. Once Brandeis released the decision to go online for the first two weeks, I felt a sense of deja vú, moving flight plans and setting up my laptop for Zoom courses in my bedroom.
I've been surviving the dejected feeling that being back online has brought on by reminiscing. The sights I saw were cool, but my favorite memories are those of the times I had with the friends I made. To me, recalling something as simple as just talking and laughing together late into the night (or early into the morning) in our dorm rooms beats the Eiffel Tower any day. I'm cautiously optimistic that things will settle down soon enough, as I'm planning to move in before the end of January. I can't wait to see my fellow Brandeis friends from London again and to befriend new people in my class. Even late at night, as I settled in for my first night back after London, I sent a quick, Jack Sparrow inspired message to my local friends who had before called me insane.
“Thank goodness I am, or else that probably would never have worked!”