Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Finding independence while studying abroad

How I’ve challenged myself to leave my comfort zone
McKenna Premus / Daily Collegian.

We’ve all heard the infamous line from “Mean Girls,” “on Wednesdays, we wear pink.” It insinuates the friend group’s aesthetic and its standards to be a member. But what draws us to participate willingly in these social behaviors? Don’t we want to stand out and be our beautifully unique selves?

Social conformity is a common feature in our day-to-day lives. Humans want to feel accepted and be reassured that their presence is appropriately affiliated. Of course, this matter is extremely prevalent among college students, and it’s something I’ve found to be top-of-mind while studying abroad in Italy this semester. From adjusting to cultural differences, to maintaining your own moral standards, social norms can be tricky to follow while abroad. Transitioning smoothly into a new culture involves embracing these norms as they are learned — a process that takes time and patience. So how do we remain the truest versions of ourselves while giving in to the norms of a new place?

Studying abroad is already a scary adjustment. You’re often living in a different time zone, adjusting to a language barrier and finding your way far from the comfort of home. It makes sense that students would want to confine themselves to the security of their friend groups. However, I find that independence is a key feature when studying abroad. Without a stable support system to lean on, it’s important to take your new experiences and recreate this subconscious backbone. It can be frightening, but it can also be exhilarating, and more than anything, empowering. Learning to live without an immediate support system allows us to reflect on our surroundings and individual experiences on deeper level.

We limit our autonomy when we submit to conformity, whether it’s within a family, friend group or class setting. It’s enough that we have to adjust to new cultural norms, but limiting yourself to the same ideas and lifestyles as the people you’re always around prevents you from fully growing.

I always thought traveling abroad could only be fun with a group of friends, and I can say from experience, it is a time of wonders. But after returning from my first solo trip to Lake Como in Italy, I was greeted by a new feeling of vivacity with life itself.  I challenged myself to explore new places, new people, new everything. By going to the lake on my own, it led me closer to those who value the same things I do: finding new hikes, spontaneously swimming in every body of water we run into, tasting new local foods and practicing yoga and mindfulness.

To be unknown in another country you have yet to explore, to be young and curious and to be open to every new experience is a privilege many of us take for granted. I find that being on your own, even for a little while, lets you retreat to your truest self. Independence is about seeking comfort in the oblivion that traveling brings. There are so many brilliant and creative people in this world to laugh, talk, eat, dance and travel with that can further broaden our perspective and deepen our appreciation for the lives outside of these conformity bubbles.

One personal change I’ve noticed since arriving in Spain is saying “yes” to as many new experiences as I can. A classmate told me about a local running group she joined here, and while I’m no runner, I thought “what the hell?” The next day, I ran alongside over 100 people, both locals and foreigners, from around the world. That was the first time I really felt connected to Barcelona in the two months since I arrived. I’ve only attended three events so far, and already, I’ve met some incredible people. I never would have imagined I’d be doing partner standing lunge-backs overlooking the shores of Barcelona, but that’s the beauty of stepping out of your comfort zone, isn’t it? When we are surrounded by a new culture, a new language and new people, we must allow ourselves to open up more than usual.

We can never truly ignore the social norms imposed by a society, but we can learn more about ourselves by how we respond to these norms individually. Seeking out independence may not happen overnight, but as you begin to change certain habits, you’ll come to find there is so much more out there that will fuel your growth and overall happiness.

Lucy Smallman can be reached at [email protected].

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