It’s been a little over a month since the end of my study abroad program in the Dominican Republic, and after an amazing experience of a lifetime, I have returned “home” to my friends and family. Writing this post has been a process for me because I didn’t know where to start. How do I summarize fourth months worth of experiences and lessons in one blog post? How do I get people to understand what I feel? More than that, I wasn’t ready and I still don’t feel ready to write about everything.
Adjustment To Coming “Home”
They say home is where the heart is, but I’ve left my heart in so many places and with so many people; I realized I don’t have just one “home” anymore. Before leaving the DR, Ryan (our program director) discussed the reentry process and dealing with culture shock upon returning. We thoroughly discussed issues we might have re-adjusting: by this time, many of us were feeling quite ready to go home, so we all laughed and joked around during this discussion, talking about things we were excited to go back to like Chipotle and tap water. I personally didn’t pay much attention to the discussion. I figured since I dealt with culture shock before, as it always hits me every summer when I return from Jamaica, I didn’t need to listen because I would know how to handle the feelings when they came and recognize the signs. I was wrong.
The day I left will probably be one that lives with me forever and it brings tears to my eyes every time I think about it. It had been raining incessantly for the last few weeks of my time there in the DR so it was no surprise that it rained the day of my salida/departure. It was humid in the apartment and got even more humid as time passed by. There’s honestly no other way to describe my last ten minutes than to compare it to a tornado hitting: I woke up pretty early, intending to eat breakfast and spend time playing dominoes with my host brother one last time before I left. But, everything just happened so quickly. By the time I finished eating breakfast, my taxi had arrived: O’niell followed me around, begging me to play with him, my abuela yelled at the driver from the balcony, and I rushed back and forth trying to gather my belongings, and to say my goodbyes at the same time. It’s all a blur really, but the most powerful image that haunts me is seeing little O’niell curled up in his bed, sobbing and trying to hide his face. I won’t forget pulling him from under the covers, hugging him, wiping his tears away as my own began to fall. I won’t forget promising him I would return one day and telling him that I loved him mucho. I won’t forget finally walking away, breaking down in my abuela’s arms as she muttered “Ay yai yai” and then descending the apartment’s stairs into the pouring rain outside.
My first week back consisted mostly of me dancing to merengue, bachata and salsa in my room, singing to Romeo Santos in my car, attempting to cook some of the recipes my abuela made, re-watching old videos and imploring my study abroad pictures to come back to life. I barely left my house, as I had no desire to do the things I used to do. The places I thought I would be excited to see again once I returned to Philly didn’t excite me as much as they did when I was abroad. People asked me how I felt to be home; did I feel happy? I smiled and told them I felt “fine” or it felt “nice” to be home, because for some reason I didn’t feel like happy, elated, or excited fit: I was simply just “okay.” Of course I missed my family more than anything, my friends for sure and the comfort of my room, but I couldn’t bring myself to say how I felt really because I didn’t understand what I was feeling. It wasn’t until I read an article titled, Post-Trip Depression: It’s Often Emotionally Harder To Come Home Than Go Away that everything clicked. I realized the feelings I was experiencing were all apart of the process and they were reasonable. It wasn’t until I spoke to friends about how I was feeling that I realized I wasn’t the only one experiencing this. And it wasn’t until I called my abuela a week after returning that I began to feel better.
Overall, my study abroad experience surpassed any and all hopes, expectations and desires I had. I met amazing people with whom I was able to share this journey with, I completed numerous tasks on my bucket list, and I experienced another country in a way many people only dream of and for that I am thankful. Studying abroad is full of a lot of ups and downs, for sure, but the ups are definitely worth the downs. It’s an opportunity that far too many people overlook and my wish is for someone reading this to take a leap and decide to study abroad or to just travel before it’s too late.
What I’ve Learned About Myself
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that I am more capable than I think I am and that my fear is my biggest hindrance. Through my time abroad, I came to acknowledge something many of my friends, teachers and my parents had been telling me for years: I have a tendency to quit things when I’m uncomfortable (my best friend is probably saying “I told you so” as she reads this). I already knew this about myself, but a few instances abroad led me to finally accept this quality as true, which in turn is helping me work on it.
Within my first week abroad, I had the passing thought that maybe I could just quit the program and return home and act as though it never happened. I could come up with some excuse as to why I was back on campus and work all semester trying to convince myself I was better off without the experience. On the first day of my painting class, I showed up to find I was the only non-Dominican student in the class and immediately started to panic. Not even five minutes in and I had already begun to tell myself I would go to Ryan’s office the first thing the next day to drop the class. Similarly, for my dancing class, the second day we began to learn our merengue routine and I decided it was just not for me. Although learning how to merengue was on my bucket list for the longest time, I told myself I’d get over not taking the class because of how incredibly uncomfortable I felt. However, I forced myself to stay in this zone of discomfort and reminded myself daily that it is only when you are outside of your comfort zone that you are able to fully experience great things in life. It would’ve been so easy to quit or to drop those classes, but I didn’t and I ended up producing artwork I never knew I was capable of making (it’s no Van Gogh but I’m proud of it) and performing two dance routines in front of a crowd, something I never thought I would ever be able to do considering sometimes even placing Starbucks orders makes me nervous.
My time abroad has further solidified my perspective on life and significantly heightened my desire to continue exploring the world once I graduate. I plan to keep learning, exploring and allowing pieces of my heart to get left behind, wherever I may go and always sin miedo.
Check out my Photo Diary to see pictures of my semester abroad, as well as my Digital Story-Telling video project here!
From the Dominican Republic…with love,