Claudia and I thought it would be interesting (as well personally beneficial) to actually write that letter that Dana, of the Mindful Expat podcast, asked each of us to consider in our interviews (which, if you missed, you can find here and here)—”If you could write a letter to yourself before you moved abroad, what would you tell yourself?” And what a trip down memory lane it is to even contemplate writing this letter! In order to do so, I get the overwhelming smiles as I look back on some of the happiest moments of my life but also some of the more difficult realizations when it comes to how much everything has changed. Although I don’t believe my most fundamental values have been altered, I do feel like I am an entirely different person than I was in high school, so I have chosen to write to my High School persona.
Dear High School Dani,
You’re eighteen years old and your biggest concern is that these amazing friendships, your “Family,” will somehow slip away in the colossal 2-3 state radius of your selected universities. You try to convince yourself that you’re super psyched about college and “freedom” starting…but really you turned down the pre-orientation multicultural weekend that was offered to move in early, just to have two more nights at home. Putting yourself outside of your comfort zone, especially at the cost of precious time with “your people” when you’re already due to start school earlier than anyone else, is not really your thing.
You have no idea that you’re about to head off to four years at an amazing liberal arts college that will change the trajectory of the rest of your life. And not necessarily because of the enriching courses, community connections with incredible companies, or plethora of internship and volunteer program you can (and will) take advantage of—no, the biggest deciding factor will be the fact that they encourage you to study abroad. And you’ll end up going to Spain after a long, drawn-out decision process that eventually ends in a pro-con list comparing Spain and the Dominican Republic in which it becomes clear that your heart is saying Spain yet you worry that (outwardly) it’s too mainstream to go to Europe…and (inwardly) that it’s too far away from home.
But those five months 4,397 miles from everything you’ve ever known will change you. You’ll see the world in a new way and you’ll meet people who are so adventurous and uninhibited. You’ll wish you were like them; you won’t be anything near like them, but you’ll wish it. You’ll take amazing trips to countries you previously never dreamed of visiting and collect friends from across the globe (who you’ll meet at hostels, atop mountains, and through all sorts of funny stories). You’ll be living the dream…but you’ll still doubt yourself for ‘doing it wrong’ by staying in on Thursday night or not jetting off every weekend, by not having enough Spanish friends, yet for spending too much time with your host mom. Contradiction after contradiction, self-judgment after self-judgment; studying abroad won’t be an escape from wondering if you’re doing things right.
Then when you wrap up your study abroad experience and say your goodbyes to each and every friend, you’ll all talk about how you’ll return to Spain one day, how you’ll see each other again, how you’ll find some way to relive the magic. And you love that hope and you take comfort in your good intentions, but you also don’t realistically think it would happen. Besides, that’s for those adventurous people, not you.
You’ll return home for the next five semesters of your undergraduate degree. You’ll miss Spain like crazy. You’ll talk with all the people who have studied abroad (especially those who were in Spain) and your reminiscing will focus on the traveling, the partying, those stereotypical aspects of studying abroad. You’ll tell yourself that’s what you miss too but deep down it will be something else.
As you your college days draw to an end, you’ll start to worry that you don’t have a plan. The rest of your friends know what they’ll be doing post-graduation and you’ll be itching to know too! You’ll start to panic a little bit. You’ll turn to the one thing that felt certain, the one place you were passionate about. You’ll apply to a bunch of teaching abroad programs, eventually get into the one that places you just outside of Granada, and pray that all of your friends who say they’re so excited for you and jealous about your upcoming adventure don’t secretly think you are an idiot or that you’re going in order to escape the ‘real world.’
You’ll be the ambitious, fearless person who turns up in Spain without anything set up in terms of lodging post-program orientation. You won’t even have made the decision about living in Granada capital or nearer to your school placement by the time you arrive. You’ll figure it out on the fly, walking up to a random hostel without a reservation and getting yourself a room for the next few days. After that your new best friends (who you’ll have met earlier that week) will invite you to crash on their couches as you house-hunt and you’ll take them up on it! Who would have known you’d be so comfortable with complete strangers…but there will be this bond and understanding between most all of the wanderluster, like yourself, who you meet.
I could go on endlessly about the countless times you will pack your life into just a suitcase and carry-on, show up in a new country without a clear plan and wing it, but I think you get the idea by now. That girl sounds crazy, doesn’t she? But in a kinda badass way? Yah, that’s because she’s the kind of girl who’s truly an adventurous traveler; she’s the kind of girl you could have never dreamed of being at eighteen. Who you ONLY dreamed of being at nineteen. And who you’ll so quickly, but mostly silently become without even allowing yourself to notice. You’ll continue to compare and doubt and question yourself. You’ll continue to admire and give full credit to your friends and people you meet for being ‘so adventurous’ and yet to turn a blind eye on what you have and will do, which is just as (if not more) courageous.
If there is anything I could say to make you more prepared for your future experiences it would not be any sage advice that I’ve gathered over the years because experience and wisdom come from doing and so they will come in their due time. Instead, all I would like to tell you if that you ARE the adventurous soul. You ARE the free spirit. And you ARE the world traveler. Pleasing yourself and finding what’s right for you will be the only way to real happiness, even if that comes at the cost of letting some people down. And it will be a daily practice, it’s not something that you will forever arrive at just because you choose to move long-term to Spain, but that’s a huge step that will open you up to the possibility of real happiness way more than ever before.
Don’t get me wrong, it will not be without its drawbacks. Just like when you were far from Spain, you’ll miss home like crazy. You’ll miss important moments like best friend’s weddings. You’ll miss grandparents passing away. You won’t be there for your family when you really should be and they also won’t be there to hold you when you need a good cry. You’ll lose friends—not so much through fall-outs but through the (perhaps more heartbreaking) silent drifting apart. You’ll feel homesick for people, places, and circumstances that no longer exist. “Home” will genuinely become the most loaded, beautiful, and yet pull-at-the-heartstrings word you could ever imagine.
You’ll be ready for it, though—you’ll meet people, learn things, and grow in ways you could have never imagined until one day you are ready to meet all those challenges and thrive nonetheless. You won’t be invincible, you won’t escape the days in which you feel incapable of dealing with all of your mixed emotions, but you’ll have built yourself a safety net and surrounded yourself with people who feel like home. You’ll find a life partner that will make each difficult moment feel ten times more worth fighting through. And you will be at peace (most days) with living on the other side of the world. I just hope that one day you will fully make peace with defining yourself as adventurous.