How Freshmen Year Can Help Prepare You to Study Abroad

30 Sep

This summer, I was fortunate enough to check another item off of my college experience to-do list; study abroad.

I spent the better part of five weeks in Cuba. Now, I know what you might be thinking. Cuba? How is that possible? You have to be making that up!  The proof is in the pictures, where you’ll notice, I am not in disguise! I was in fact, in Cuba, and I studied there (no, not espionage) for five weeks.

All secret-agent jokes aside, I want to share how the first five weeks of freshmen year prepared me for my five-week study abroad in Cuba. I have realized how closely these experiences compare, and that there are universal similarities to all “new” starts, no matter where you are going to school, or what you are studying.

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Week One:

When I arrived in Cuba, I will be the first to openly admit I was nervous and even a little scared. It’s not like I had traveled there before and knew how to make my way through customs and exchanging money. My stress levels were off the charts. As I worked my way through customs and went to the Casa de Cambio (CadeCa as they call it in Cuba), I started the adjustment period. That week, I met my host family who I would become close to, and I began to explore the city of Havana, which is an experience that I am still in awe of today.

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College, at least for the first week or two, is all about adjusting to what is going on. Even the little things can seem large and overwhelming when you first encounter them. I learned this freshmen year and was reminded of this when I was abroad. Although at the time, it may seem as if there is no end to the confusion and controlled chaos, there is. There are a lot of potentially negative emotions associated with change and adjusting, but I also want to point out that there are also a lot of great emotions like excitement and pure happiness. It seems as if Churchill and Britain had it right during WWII; the best way to deal with emotions is to (try to) keep calm and carry on. Every storm runs out of rain, and sometimes dancing in the rain isn’t a bad thing.

Weeks Two and Three:

At the beginning of the second week in Cuba, I had calmed down immensely and was ready for any adventure. I would spend my mornings in the classroom and the afternoons walking around the beautiful and historic neighborhoods and districts of Havana. Everywhere I walked there was something new to see, someone new to talk about and more to fall in love with. Havana was the greatest thing I had seen. I fell in love with every cobblestone street and 1930s building. The kids played baseball in the alleys and the artists showed off their work as we walked by, and there was always a comforting rhythm of Cuban music.

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When the second and third week come around in the semester, you feel accomplished for completing the first week and making it out alive. In addition to this great accomplishment, you start to get a hang of everything and develop your own rhythm. Also, the second and third weeks are a time of exploration and adventure. You’ve figured out which clubs are tabling on the Mall and you have probably signed up for 20 new listservs. When I was walking through the streets of Havana, I remembered for the first time in a long time, this exploratory feeling, and it was refreshing. To be excited about something you are doing is always a good motivator as it brings you relief from some of the academic stress, so stay involved and stay connected on campus. Even if it is as simple as eating lunch with your friends on campus, making those connections will help the U of A feel like home in no time.

Week Four:

By week four of my study abroad experience, things really began to fall into place. I had my classes down, I had met a few people and I was talking with my host family about everything imaginable. As part of the itinerary, I traveled to other cities throughout Cuba during this week. Again, the excitement was tangible, but it was also a nice break from the routine that I had established in Havana. We traveled to three different cities and experienced a whole different side of Cuba that I will never forget. Each city had its own history, and as our guide told us the stories that shaped each city, they came alive. You could see the years that had turned the stories into legends and created the country as it stands today.

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I remember my fourth week of my first semester here at the U of A very vividly. I was tired and I had put in a lot of hours studying and preparing for finals. I knew when the weekend rolled around I needed a break and I needed a change of pace. I was fortunate enough to have a friend who had her car, so we arranged a day trip to Mt. Lemmon. Being able to step away from everything for a while and take what I like to call “personal time” was much needed. In hindsight, personal time was probably the reason I stayed sane that semester. I would highly recommend that you find what makes you happy, and what is rejuvenating for you, and take the time to do it. A little personal time goes a long way, so make sure you take care of yourself.

Week Five:

This week was bittersweet for me. It was the last week in Cuba and I knew that I was going to have to leave all the great things that I had discovered and the people I grew to love. In this week, I took time to reflect on my experience as a whole. I took into consideration what I had learned, the messages I would take with me, and how I would try to incorporate them into my life back home.

Week five is the middle of the semester and you are in the heart of it all. Midterms are starting and projects are being finished. Week five is a week to buckle down and get serious about studying, but it’s also good to sit down and update planners or schedules that you may be using. This is a great point to evaluate how far you have come and make plans for the future. If things are going great, that is wonderful, but if you are like me during my first semester, I had some areas that could have used serious improvement. I took this time to come up with a game plan for how to tackle the rest of the semester.

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In the end, I used a lot of my experiences from freshmen year to help me through the transition of studying abroad. Although there are many challenges that we all face as students, it is important to remember that you can face them, and that there is help out there if you need it. Five weeks is both a very short and a very long period of time, and it is truly up to you to decide what you want to do with that time. Cuba showed me that there is so much to appreciate and admire in this world. It also reminded me that the skills I learned as a freshman, both inside and outside of the classroom, are applicable to real life. 

–Lauren Erdelyi

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