I know it took me quite a while to write this text – 10 years to be precise. But the important thing is that it’s out! To the ones who were part of the amazing experience – I hope it will bring back to life nice memories and moments we shared and as for the other readers – well, I hope you’ll enjoy and pick up on some useful things along the way. I promise you’ll find several advice at the end of the text! 🙂
As I sit here behind the computer, I try to rewind back to more than 10 years ago and remember that exact moment I decided I want to go and study in the United States in 3rd grade of High School. Now that I look to the past, I remember I was a 16 at the time. How little I knew about the world, especially one so far away like the US.
However, drawn by the experience of my cousin, and his stories, I knew I wanted to go. Of course, it wouldn’t have been possible without the immense support of my parents – they deserve a medal, I think.
But to go back to that cousin of mine I mentioned. You might wonder – why is he relevant to this whole story? Well, what I didn’t mention is that we both went to the same state in the US, with some 5 years difference.
In the application I had to fill in in order to go, I was left with a clear choice where would I like to go i.e. which state. That’s where the desire kicked in to go to New York (to be as closer to NYC as possible), California (to go close to L.A. where my aunt lives), Florida (to go somewhere where it’s warm and Miami, I guess), Illinois (because Chicago) and the most random state ever – North Carolina.
As you can see, I concentrated my desires around the big cities I wanted to visit. Unfortunately enough for the me-back-then, I could not pick the state I did not want to go to. My first pick would be Nebraska (my dear Nebraskans, don’t get mad, I’ll explain).
Remember that cousin of mine I mentioned a couple of rows up? Well, in 2001 he went to study to the US in the state of Nebraska. As I said before, he had all sorts of amazing stories to tell when he came back, but what I didn’t say is that most of them included words like countryside, cattle, fishing, hunting, agricultural machinery, tumbleweed, farm, ranch, rodeo, corn and then some more corn.
It was fun and exciting to hear someone else talk about it but not as attractive to want to experience it yourself. I think you understand why – a city girl, with a desire to see and visit much bigger cities, not much, much smaller! And certainly not the US Midwest, ’cause who knows where the hell Nebraska is.
So, I applied. And the process was this – you apply and then you wait. Luckily, it was summertime so I could preoccupy my mind with some beach time. I was told by the people from the agency that I should know by beginning to mid-August about my placement, because schools in the US start several weeks earlier than in Montenegro and that I will be going around mid-August.
August came, then mid-August came, but I heard no words from anyone. As days went by, I became more and more impatient. I wanted to go. Not just anywhere, but to one of my top 5 picks. But by August 20th I did not care anymore where I went as long as it wasn’t Nebraska. I kept repeating in my head “just not Nebraska, just not Nebraska”.
On August 25th I received a phone call and the lady said – “On August 28th you are going to the US and starting school at the city called Arthur in the state called Nebraska”. As soon as I heard that, I realized I don’t want to go anymore. I preferred staying in my city Podgorica in my beautiful country Montenegro to going to some place where I would be the 146th inhabitant. Still, my mom managed to persuade me with the words “don’t worry, if you don’t like it you can always come back”. So I went.
That moment of departure when my family accompanied me to the airport in Podgorica I still remember very vividly, as it was yesterday. It’s the first time I realized how big of a sacrifice our parents make for us and the first time I saw my mom cry. It wasn’t just any type of cry – it was a cry of worry for sending 17-year-old daughter somewhere so far away to live with people you only interacted with through one or two e-mails.
After crying our eyes out, I left. First Belgrade, then Frankfurt, then Chicago, then Linclon, then Lincoln again, Denver, and finally North Platte. Hell a lot of airports for a first time traveller. One digression and the icing on the cake – my mom unintentionally made my trip even more complicated. I had to go through 8 airports instead of 5. But, nevermind.
As I boarded the plane with seats for 10 persons in Denver, I felt nervous. I didn’t know what awaited me. However, the first encounter with my host family at the airport went very well. My host mom and my 2-year-old host brother waited for me holding a big sign saying “Welcome, Marija”.
During one-hour ride “home” I was given a box with family photographs and served with some fun family stories. I remember my first cultural shock. Every person who went by us from the other direction waved, so I asked how come it is possible she knows every person behind the wheel to what I got an answer that’s just a way of being polite, and giving a signal you’re good. I loved it!
We turned from the highway onto the gravel road. It took us 5 minutes to get to the driveway of a house that seemed not too big at first. Meadow and barely some trees were surrounding it out in the countryside. Not to mention other houses. I was given a small tour of the house and introduced to a space that I will call home for the next 10 months.
But, it seemed Nebraska and me are not meant to be – as I entered my room, I saw a dead mouse under the bed (yes, you read well). That was taken care of quite fast though. I settled and unpacked my stuff, and opened the window a bit because I like to have fresh air. I took my phone to send a message to my parents I arrived safe and sound but there was no signal. Additionally, there was no WiFi so I just used the landline.
I was called up upstairs to eat something, but since I was served with a pizza too spicy for my taste I just said I wasn’t hungry. I was stuck in my room, internetless, in the middle of nowhere, with some strangers and with the food I hate. Amazing beginning!
But that was not it for my first Nebraska night. As I stood up from my bed, I realized something looking like a cable was sticking out of the trashcan. I approached to see what is it and realized it was a snake (yes, I know!). So I started shouting out loud the word snake in Montenegrin but no one showed up.
I became aware of the words coming out of my mouth and switched to English and eventually someone came to rescue. Luckily, it wasn’t a dangerous one but it was enough for me to freak out and never open that damn window again. Of course, after experiencing this I called my parents and said I hate it and I want to go back home.
First day at school was great. I chose my courses in consultation with the school counselor (another shocker cause we could not do that in Montenegro), got my books and the locker (something I only saw in the movies) and everyone was beyond kind and friendly. Both teachers and students seemed like one big happy family. It felt different and comforting. In addition, the school had WiFi, which at that point made me love it even more.
By that moment, I decided to give it a chance and some more time and see whether I’ll start liking it. So it happened. I started loving my teachers, my peers, my host family and I started liking my life in Arthur. I was suggested to join high school sport teams, because that was something everybody does at school, and “if you’re not part of the team you are not cool and nobody wants to hang out with you”. First three months it was volleyball (something I was familiar with), then basketball (first time I played it in my life) and then it was track and field (imagine me running 4x400m).
I went through several culture shocks. The most difficult period were the first couple of months – for some reason, I could not get used to the fact that I could not eat everywhere I wanted but at the kitchen table, only when everyone’s at home, I could not get used to spicy and Mexican food so I rejected to eat many times, I used every occasion and break at school to get online and talk to my family and friends because I wasn’t able at home. All in all, a lot of rejection from my part.
But as everything else in life, you get used to all of it quite fast and you eventually come around. That is even easier when you have wonderful people with a lot of understanding surrounding you. Everybody knew I was very far away from home, had no one from “my people” so they went beyond limits to make me feel welcome, but at the same time were trying to teach me certain things.
Home was the place where I learned the world parsley, how to play Scrabble, DVR can record series playing on the TV, rules in American football, how to survive without internet and phone, that my room is my space and it’s my choice whether I want to clean it or not cause at the end I am the one who lives there, to love Criminal Minds and every other police-related TV show, to cheer for Jordin Sparks in the American Idol, everything there is to know about Christmas, how much I love scented candles, to enjoy the Christmas gifts and not knowing what you’ll get until you wake up on Christmas morning, how to put together a round puzzle, how much a 15-min phone call to Montenegro costs, the meaning of Thanksgiving, how to give a shot of insulin and feed a dog with diabetes, that the tights are too improper for school, how to love and enjoy spending quality time with people who don’t have the same mother tongue, are a part of different culture and are not related to you but chose you randomly to live with them for one year, to love Kanzas City Chiefs and dislike Denver Broncos (sorry Ryan!), that a host grand-grandma can be as much of a great-grandma as “a real one” and the list goes on..
On the other hand, I learned at the school how long distance classes work, how to make Orange Julius in Spanish, to play basketball, to run the popcorn machine at the concession stand, the right moment to run to the kitchen when the chocolate milk comes in, that it is ok to come to school in pajamas or slippers, that it is ok to sit on the floor in class, almost everything there is about JFK’s murder, how to make a book shelf and use all the machines you’ll need throughout the process, to drive, to collect points at the library while reading the books, that your principal could be your professor and your coach at the same time, the lyrics of the Star-Spangled Banner, what Pep Rally is, what Homecoming is, to make an ad for Levis, to create a website, to chase people around the city to sign up for magazines in order to win a competition, to build a writing portfolio, what to do in case there was a tornado (and there actually was one!), how it feels to score in basketball for the first time ever and have the whole crowd cheering for you at the game, that the “Most improved player” award actually exists, to get up at 4a.m. for practice after which you will most probably get some cinnamon rolls as a reward etc.
Both lists could go to the infinity. Remembering all these moments and people that were crucial to me at that point in life when I was still mentally developing, make me realize how important they actually are and are meritorious for the person I am today.
I was very lucky to end up with host parents who were 30 years old at the time and were more like older brother and sister than parents, to have my 18-year-old host uncle (sorry Brian, but that’s what you were) living with us and to enjoy so much spending time with my little 2-year-old host brother. I am happy I had an agency supervisor who still checks up on me from time to time, and all of non-American friends I made along the way during the 40-hour ride to Florida and our trip to South Dakota, who I still meet up with from time to time all around the world.
I am at that point when I can say that I was also lucky to end up in that small town of Arthur, with its amazing people, that one post office, one gas station, one bar and one store. Finally, after one year living in Nebraska, I can say I experienced true America and, at the end of the day, it’s good I did not go to any of those big cities, because my first Midwestern American experience was deserving of me loving US and all of its towns and cities even more each next time I went.
As I went back for a visit in 2011, all the emotion and feelings just flushed me. I came back to that High School period in just one second. Still, there were some people who weren’t there anymore, and I missed them immensely. I still do.
It just was not the same. But it was good to be back!
To conclude, this unique experience has taught me so many things and I’ll share some of my advice with you when it comes to going abroad for an exchange at a young age.
DON’T BE PICKY
Seriously, don’t be picky about where you’re going. Every experience is good experience, as long as there are lessons learned (and there are always). Size of the city or school does not matter. The important thing is to make the most use out of it, pick up on as much knowledge as you can and share what you learnt with the world around you when you come back.
BE PREPARED FOR A CULTURE SHOCK
Living in a new country can be exciting and difficult at the same time. Be prepared to feel lonely, frustrated or disoriented. Usually these feelings are temporary, but sometimes they can last longer and affect your studies and your experience overall. If that happens, share what you feel with the people around you and help them understand what you’re going through. They can help!
DON’T BE AFRAID OF NEW PEOPLE
Studying abroad is a great opportunity to make new friendships with people from other countries and cultures, which will last a lifetime.
The people you will surround yourself with in the new environment will probably be the ones you will identify as who are eager to know more about you and where you come from, who like your personality and enjoy spending time with you. They are no aliens. They are pretty much the same as your people back home and can only be good or bad. And you’ll have to rely on your own intuition not to pick up on those bad ones. 😉
LEARN TO ADJUST TO THE NEW CULTURE
You will live in a country for a certain amount of time with a culture different than what you’re used to at home. You will have to adjust! Do not reject the culture, customs or the language. Even maybe when at times there are things you dislike, suck it in and do it. Remember that cultural learning is a crucial part of studying abroad, so expose yourself to the new culture and way of living.
DON’T BE AFRAID IF YOU DON’T KNOW SOMETHING
I am primarily referring to the language here, but it could be applied to other things. It’s fine you don’t speak or understand the language perfectly. People around you are aware of the fact you are not native. However, you are there to learn, so you’re supposed to show you want to learn, invest your time and put an effort into it.
APPRECIATE THE SACRIFICE YOUR PARENTS ARE MAKING
You don’t just owe it to yourself to make the best use out of your experience abroad but to your parents as well. There are no people in the world who care about you more than them, who are ready to make this big of a sacrifice and let you wander around somewhere far away among the unknown people. They did not just invest their money in it, but a lot love, patience and time. Moreover, going abroad is not a vacation!
TRY NEW THINGS
Don’t run away from trying new things, whatever they might be – new courses, sports, extracurricular activities, foods, drinks, etc. You never know, you might discover some new talents you never knew you had.
BE READY FOR FEELING HOMESICK
Homesickness is a feeling everybody has had at some point during his or her time abroad. It’s normal! You will feel it too, but that will not have an effect on the amazing experience you’ll have. More importantly, you will not be alone.
You will have your host family who will embrace you as their own, your fellow classmates who will give you support when needed, your professors to provide you with care and guidance and other resources to make you feel better. The feeling of being homesick will not last forever and as the time goes by it will only make you feel stronger, braver and more confident.