Elusive Expectations: Finding My Bearings After a Split Year Abroad
Written by Lily Fang ’18
Before I left, I wrote myself a letter.
It was my final night on-campus before my junior year abroad. After hauling my remaining clutter to storage, I plopped down at my desk in my now-bare room. It felt unsettlingly empty.
I was sad that day. A full year abroad was my longtime dream, but it also meant leaving close friends behind—friends who would graduate and disperse across the world before my return. I never knew indefinite goodbyes could be so unbearable.
After feverishly penning sappy notes to these kindred souls, I turned to my final envelope. A dainty white flower print danced across the deep navy paper. I poured my feelings onto a matching piece of stationery, then carefully sealed them inside the envelope.
Like all my previous self-addressed letters, these words were meant to be a sort of time capsule. I wrote to capture my predeparture hopes and worries. I wrote to create a source of comfort, inspiration, and nostalgia for the Lily who would return.
Note clutched in my hand, I slipped out of my dorm. The night air was brisk and quiet on my walk to the campus center. I unlocked my tiny mailbox, gingerly placed the envelope inside, and clicked the door shut. I would be back for it in a year.
I wrote my first letter to myself at the end of middle school. It was a class assignment, and our teachers promised to keep the letters safe until our high school graduation. Four years later, I eagerly tore my white envelope open. Scanning my thirteen-year-old scrawl, I chuckled at my exuberant remarks and cliché advice: I hope you get a cellular device and become famous! Most importantly, stay true to yourself! Love you LOTS, girl! Inspired by our profound ponderings, a handful of my senior class wrote new letters that summer, to be opened one year after our college graduations. A few months later, during my freshman orientation, I wrote another that I opened after my first year of college.
These self-addressed letters quickly became a personal ritual before likely-transformative transitions. Study abroad seemed like yet another apt opportunity. After all, I would be leaving my native country for ten months, with no plans to return in-between. I would be living in a continent I’d never visited. I would be studying in a language that was not my own. I would be navigating between two different cultures, with fall in Bordeaux and spring at Oxford.
Then, I would return to a country and campus that would no longer feel the same.
Three weeks ago, I made my homecoming. I arrived on-campus in a daze—the familiarity was almost unsettling after a year of novel landscapes and experiences. Despite my disorientation, I made a beeline for my college mailbox. I hoped it wouldn’t be jammed shut—it would surely be stuffed after a year’s worth of random notices and missed letters.
It was empty.
I peered through the glass, thinking perhaps I had missed my time capsule letter at first glance. Still nothing. I entered my code and clicked open the box. I poked around, just to make sure it wasn’t tucked away in a corner. But it was really gone.
I had forgotten that the college closes our mailboxes at the beginning of each summer, forwarding home anything left behind. So all the stamped and addressed mail I’d been expecting was safe at home. I’d been careless with the letter to myself, however. Since it was for me, it was neither stamped nor addressed—I hadn’t even labeled it with my name. The campus center postman rummaged through his bins for me, but also came up empty-handed.
I was moody about my lost letter in the days to come. It wasn’t really important, but it was. I could never go back in time and write another note. If I could, I sure wouldn’t leave it in my college mailbox.
I wish I could remember what I’d written.
I could only speculate now, piecing together familiar fragments from old blog posts and journal entries. My writing was surely flowery, and my expectations surely outlandish. An impeccable French accent after four months of immersion! Galivanting across Europe every weekend! I must’ve braced myself for the alleged academic trauma that was Oxford. Your friends may have attempted to dissuade you from going, but you’re always up for a good challenge. I likely tried to console myself about leaving my Amherst family behind. These goodbyes may be indefinite, but the resonance will continue to live if we fuel it. I wonder what else I might’ve said.
There was much, however, that I hadn’t remotely envisioned.
I never expected to struggle so much in France, for instance. I assumed that classes in Bordeaux would be a breeze compared to Amherst’s rigor. But the French university system was intimidating and unwieldly in its own way. There were no syllabi, no office hours, and no regular assignments—a single project and final exam often composed the entirety of our grade. Classes normally lasted between 2-3 hours, and professors would speak at you rather than inviting discussion. What’s more, essay content and formatting was stringent; deviation from the professor’s interpretation of a work was simply considered wrong. These unanticipated obstacles dampened my semester. I was frustrated and disappointed—rather than focusing on language immersion like I’d hoped, I spent most of my free time panicking about my work.
I expected another academic nightmare at Oxford. My Amherst friends had warned me: Please don’t go to Oxford—you’ll die. After all, the urban myth surrounding Oxford was that all you do is study and suffer. Oddly enough, I found Oxford was much less traumatic. My courses were intense, but the tutorial system was more intimate and more intellectually liberating. I spent 1-3 hours in-class a week, and most of that time involved one-on-one meetings with my professors (or in Oxford jargon, my tutors). I spent the rest of my time studying on my own, crunching math problems, reading stacks of French texts, and writing essays.
And in my free time, I wasn’t panicking about the school system. Instead, I grew closer to my fellow international students (I unfortunately didn’t make any good local friends, as I had in France—some even came and visited me at Oxford). I made a few trips back to France to have a better experience. A friend and I launched a website dedicated to romantic tragedy memoirs.
My year was full of anomalies that my time capsule letter could’ve never predicted. Along the way, I even gave up violin—a hobby I’d maintained for over ten years. Orchestra was so ingrained in my daily life, and it was an integral part of my identity at Amherst. But I was in a new place; why not do something different? In April, I told the Oxford University orchestra that I wouldn’t be playing that term. I tucked my instrument case away in a nook of my room, and haven’t played since. I don’t know if I’ll play again.
I went abroad naively hoping to “find myself”; it seemed instead that I was losing myself. My activities weren’t the only things that changed. I began to dress differently, trading my vibrantly-colored pieces for more neutral tones. I began to realign my academic interests, feeling more drawn to French, despite having chosen Oxford for its rigor in math. I even began to question the career path I’d been seriously considering, abandoning my grad school plans and instead plotting my return to French-speaking countries.
At first, I lamented the loss of my old habits and ideas. But as Norah Ephron once said, “You are not going to be you, fixed and immutable you, forever.” Perhaps this wasn’t loss at all—perhaps it was just reconstruction.
I don’t know what this means for the year ahead. To be honest, I’m a bit apprehensive. Being abroad felt expansive: I had no pre-established routines, so I could do whatever I wanted and be whoever I wanted. At Amherst, that’s not quite the case—here, I battle the boundaries of the campus mold I once fit.
I don’t know what’s ahead, and that’s okay. Despite so much uncertainty, my year abroad panned out just fine. We can never rely on our expectations anyways—my experience was vastly different from what I’d envisioned. I don’t need my time capsule letter to realize that.
My letter is gone, and my year abroad has ended. But there are many more transformative adventures to plan and notes to be written.