What it is Like to Return

Written by Ruth Manzanares ’18

The date is January 4th, 2017. It’s 4 in the morning and I can’t sleep. I don’t know if it’s from nervousness, excitement, or a combination of the two. All I know is that I’m about to embark on the journey of my life. In just a few hours I will be on a plane to Spain, a longtime dream of mine. I could not tell you when this dream began only that it was always there, far from reach, but there nonetheless. Now here it was, within arm’s reach and I was in complete awe. If you had asked me a few years ago when I would fulfill my dream, I wouldn’t have been able to provide an answer. I didn’t know when it would happen, I had assumed it would be after I had a career. Yet here I was, going to Spain at the tender age of 20. With that being said, I didn’t have many goals set in place before leaving, if I am being completely honest. I was too filled with excitement about the opportunity to travel that that was all I could think about. However, no goal or expectation could really have prepared me for all I would face in the coming months.

Ruth standing on a beach at sunset looking over her shoulder at the camera

The date now is June 29th, 2017. I had just said my final goodbye to my host mom who had made me feel at home in Cádiz for the last 179 days. I am now in a taxi headed to the bus stop where I was to board an overnight bus to the airport in Madrid. I look out the window with tears in my eyes and say a silent goodbye to this small town that was my home for the last 6 months, a place that would forever have a piece of my heart. I quietly think of the memories I made here. I thought of all the great times, the hard times, the incredible times, the challenging times, and the quiet times. My time in Spain was more than anything I could have hoped for yet something I could never have anticipated. How would I have known of all the challenges I would face? How could I have known that I would see some of the most beautiful sights, cultures, and people I had ever seen? The most I have seen in my 21 years of life at that. How could I have anticipated the struggle of adjusting to a different education system that felt so unfamiliar to me I often doubted whether I would do well or not? How could I have prepared for experiences that changed me so monumentally I felt like a different person at times? Most importantly, how can I put into words 6 months of my life in a way that everyone could understand the depth of that experience?

The date is July 1st, 2017. I am in the car with my papa, who had just picked me up from the airport. The car ride home was one of the most surreal rides of my life. Words cannot properly convey how strange it felt being back in California after 6 months. It felt familiar, yet so foreign. It reminded me of the first time I came home from college and realized how much had changed when I was away. It felt strange being in a car and driving on the freeway after months of endless walking and public transportation. It felt weird having cellular data again after relying on wifi to be able to send messages on WhatsApp. My dad asked me how my flight was and I say it was okay. It was easy to see how glad he was to see me after a long time; I am sure I showed the same because I had also missed him. I was excited to see my mom again too, despite speaking with her every day while in Spain. I couldn’t wait to see my brother and his family, to hug my niece and my nephew who had grown so much in my absence. I was so excited, yet scared. I was afraid to see what had changed in my absence, but I was particularly scared to see how much I changed while away. However, these feelings of fear and excitement couldn’t have prepared me for the feeling of dejection I felt when my family didn’t want to hear my stories. To them it was like I went on an extended vacation where all I did was travel. All the stories I had to offer were the same and listening to one was enough. After all, what challenges could I have encountered that weren’t made better by the fact that I was in Europe? Now that the “vacation” was over it was time to go back to normal.

Cityscape in Cadiz, Spain

It is August 5th 2017. I could cry. Earlier in the year, while I was still in Spain, I applied to be a Global Leader for Academic Programs International (API). I received the email informing that I had been accepted to participate in the Global Leadership Academy on July 7th, 2017, news that filled me with so much joy and excitement. I have just arrived to Austin, Texas where API was hosting a training for the Global Leaders on what was expected of us in the coming academic year and how to use our story to promote international education. I had already met the program organizers via Google Hangouts, but I was so excited to meet them in person and be able to meet others in the program. When I arrived, I found myself among people who understood what I was feeling. I was with people who knew of the impact studying abroad has on one’s life. They wanted to hear the stories I had to tell and I had the wonderful opportunity of hearing theirs as well. They knew what it felt like to have to readjust to being back in the United States and how challenging it was to find a balance between going back to the routine of home with reflecting on the events abroad. Knowing I wasn’t alone in this transition back to the United States was just as validating as it was empowering. It really wasn’t until I was among this brilliant group of people that I realized just how much I needed a space to properly reflect on those six months in Spain and think about they different ways it had impacted my life.

Amherst dorm with lots of grass and trees

It is now September 3rd, 2017. Classes are scheduled to begin on the 5th and I had just moved in to my dorm room. I was excited to start the school year. Here I was, a senior, about to begin my last two semesters at Amherst with my closest friends. Friends that I missed so much in my time away that my heart still aches thinking about the distance. However, coming back to Amherst was just as challenging, if not more challenging, than going to Spain. As the semester went on, I found myself feeling the same dejection I first felt when I came home. For some reason I began to feel guilty for having studied abroad when some of my friends hadn’t. I hadn’t realized all that I missed in my absence. I missed all the stories, all the new trends, all the inside jokes. However, there were also things that my friends missed. There were experiences that I couldn’t put into words and could only be understood if you were there. I hadn’t felt this disconnect while abroad because I still was in constant contact with my friends, yet there it was in group conversations where one person would say “Remember when…” and I didn’t know what they were talking about. It was in the moments where I would want to talk about an event that happened abroad, but would hold myself back because I didn’t want to seem like someone that couldn’t move on from the past. I felt like I needed to “move forward” while not knowing what that meant.

We are now caught up to the present. I am weeks away from graduating Amherst and I finally feel like I have adjusted. I began working for the Global Education Office earlier in the year, which, combined with being a Global Leader, has allowed me to find the balance I so desperately needed. By organizing and participating in events I found the space where I, along with others who studied abroad, can reflect on their experience and potentially learn something new about themselves. I realize now that the issue I was facing was that everyone, including myself, treated my time studying abroad like a pause where I would pick up from where I left off when I returned. No one could have anticipated how drastically my time in Spain would change me, especially me. I was trying to continue living as if I were still in Cádiz while also living like I never left Amherst. I have come to realize that I am neither of those people but rather someone in the middle, and that is okay. It is all about learning to live in the present while honoring the events of the past that have shaped you to be the person you are today. Cádiz forever changed how I see myself and how I see the world. I will always carry my time there with me and it has definitely influenced my plans for the future. I am forever grateful for all the experiences, both in Cádiz and in Amherst, that have brought me to this point in my life where the world is at my fingertips.

Ruth standing on beach with word 'gracias' written in the sand

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