When Goals are Getting in the Way

I keep trying to visualize myself in the city of Cádiz, which will be my home in about two weeks, but instead I end up with this mental image of me returning to Amherst after the semester is over. I guess it makes sense. My mind is returning to what it knows, staying inside its visual comfort zone. But it’s still an odd thing to imagine: myself, months from now, in a familiar place with familiar people, but on the other side of the huge and mysterious study abroad abyss.

To be more specific, I can picture one particular scene at school, which has returned to my head again and again over the past few weeks, really clearly. I’m in a Mo Pratt common room with a group of my friends, lounging on the couches and the rug with wet hair and sweatpants, eating and talking and doing nothing on our phones. This is a pretty accurate description of what my days will be like when I return to Amherst. My trip back from a fall semester abroad looks a little different than that of most Amherst students, because as a winter athlete, I’m back on campus to train starting the morning of December 29th. (Brutal, I know.) My mind’s eye pans around the room, soaking up the faces and voices I’ve been missing since May, cozily smushed into the corner of a scratchy polyester armchair.

But then, suddenly, the perspective of the image switches. I see myself – an older, different, post-abroad self – through my friends’ eyes. Sometimes, in this strange mental image, I’m happy and laughing and it looks and feels as if I never left Amherst. Other times, I look frustrated and out of place, clearly feeling some sort of disconnect between myself and the people I usually connect with so easily. Sometimes, the first thing I notice is that I’m gorgeous and tan, clearly having benefited from months under the Andalusian sun. Other times, I look and act exactly the same. And other times still, I inexplicably have a nose ring (really not sure what that’s about – definitely not happening).

Obviously, I have no idea what I’ll actually look or feel like when I return from studying abroad. I think my mind’s insistence on coming back to this scene is a result of a common tendency that I certainly have (as do many people, especially at places like Amherst) to look at results over processes, final products instead of the experiences that created them. If you succeed, who cares how you got there. And if you fail, who cares why. I’ve been wired my whole life to keep some sort of end goal in sight and to work towards that goal – whatever it takes – until it is achieved. And honestly, I still think this approach makes sense a lot of the time. But for study abroad, is there really an end goal? Besides just learning and growing from the experience? Of course I have many smaller goals set – regarding everything from classes (don’t be scared of professors, pass all your classes!!!) to extracurriculars (join a swim team and a club of some sort) to food (try at least one new thing every week, remember your vegetables) to friends (be the first to reach out, befriend international and local students) – but I’m going to avoid anticipating any sort of final place I want to reach or person I want to become by the end of this semester. That kind of liberating open-mindedness is a goal to strive for in and of itself.

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