Staying Connected Abroad

Written by Gem McHaffey ’21

Gem McHaffey ’21

In the fall of 2019 I studied abroad at the University of Edinburgh through the IFSA-Butler program, which means I was lucky enough to study abroad right before the pandemic. As a senior, this has also put me in the strange position of having my last “normal” semester of college take place at a university that wasn’t Wesleyan. However, looking back I can’t say I fully regret this strange position. With everything I learned from my time abroad I feel particularly ready to handle anything that is thrown at me. As I start thinking about my life after college my abroad experience keeps appearing in my mind.

When I arrived in Scotland for IFSA-Butler orientation I was quickly overwhelmed with a combination of jet lag and the pressure to make friends. I have never been the kind of person who tends to do well in situations where one is expected to make friends quickly. Still, I did my best to make small talk and participate in the activities. However, at the end of IFSA-Butler orientation, everyone was transferred to their different buildings and I realized I had made a bit of a mistake in not successfully making friends or getting contact information during orientation. In the weeks that followed, I mostly lost track of other IFSA-Butler students in the rush of Edinburgh.

A unique aspect of the IFSA-Butler program is that program attendees live in first year University of Edinburgh housing with other university students. It is a set-up that provides for greater immersion, however, can also provoke loneliness. While I bonded with my flatmates, I missed the support of other students studying abroad and dealing with the same situation I was. As a result, for the first few weeks of my time abroad I dealt with some extreme loneliness.

At a certain point I realized that in order to triumph over the loneliness I needed to get involved in university activities. I needed the structure and the connection of having a weekly activity. I decided to pick one thing that I was familiar with, which for me was dance, and one thing that was very outside of my comfort zone, the curling team. Curling is a sport that originated in Scotland and has deep cultural roots. It was a way for me to learn about the culture and have a set place to be. IFSA-Butler staff tend to encourage students to join sports at Edinburgh for this very reason.

The curling team met once a week at the ice rink. We would take the bus there, usually together, and practice for an hour or two. I learned fairly quickly that curling is something that truly takes a lifetime to master, and I was not particularly naturally gifted at it. I came home each week with bruises covering my knees from falling on the ice. However, there was something beautiful about the sport. It requires strategy, teamwork, balance, and strength. By the end of the months I spent during my semester in Scotland, I had just begun to figure out how to aim.

Despite my lack of talent, I enjoyed every second of it. I had found community. After practice each week, we would go upstairs at the rink, drink hot chocolate, and hang out. We had weekly socials that included trivia nights, parties, and trips to the Edinburgh Christmas market. I made friends from all over the world and learned a lot about what life is like for students at the University of Edinburgh. I learned significantly more about Scotland than I would have had I simply isolated myself among other American study abroad students. While my loneliness never completely faded while I was abroad, knowing that I had a community and a place to be every Wednesday afternoon made all the difference.

I learned a lot about being alone abroad, but most importantly that I can handle being alone and that I can find community wherever I am. I have found myself dealing with similar bouts of loneliness during the pandemic and yet I have significantly more confidence in myself. This confidence is one of the best gifts that my time abroad has given me.