I never expected to come abroad. The plane tickets from Charlotte to Zurich and back from Milan cost as much as I made in a month last summer, after I decided to go to Europe with PGS. I never thought that I could get sufficient funding to keep myself out of debt for studying abroad, and so, it was never in my Course of Study Planner, the tool that Honors gives students to allow them to plan their undergraduate careers. This was never on my VT bucket list, never in my life goal. Europe, to me, was as far away as the moon, and Africa? Mars.
When I was asked to join the 2013 PGS cohort in May 2012, I drove to Blacksburg, a 45-minute jaunt up I-81 that I had been doing for years, and met with the Honors faculty. I explained my financial situation and asked how they could help me. I also asked about the safety of the trip, as well as the course work. When I got home, I told my mom that I was going to Europe the following spring. She did not act surprised, but started looking up large suitcases online. I applied for my passport. At that time, I had only left the South twice, once to New Jersey when I was three years old and the previous spring break, a long weekend in Orlando with my aunt. For some reason, I was committing to spending 4 months oversees.
I worked two jobs all summer, averaging forty hours a week and going up to fifty-five when I was called in to cover shifts. I was a hostess and worked at a country club pool in the concessions stand. I worked out in the mornings in preparation for a week-long backpacking trip in the Sequoia National Park and King’s Canyon with the Partners in the Park program, an initiative by the National Collegiate Honors Conference in partnership with the Park Service and sponsored by Southern Utah University to get Honors students from around the country involved in the US national park system. I had never even slept outside, and I had committed to this trip at the urging of the Honors staff.
That hiking trip remains a marker of change for me. I pushed myself past my physical and emotional limits, and thrived. I was braver than I had ever been before. I flew alone for the first time, went west for the first time, and tested my body’s endurance. I met fantastic people from around the country. I was cold and damp, sore and bleeding, but I did not stop. While walking out of the backcountry the last day, I wondered why on earth I had to go back. I wanted to keep walking forever.
Back in Blacksburg after my hectic summer, things began to fall apart, as they tend to do. I had fights with friends who I had thought cared about me, once. I pushed people away. I dropped two classes, admitting defeat in the face of twenty-two credits. And I came to realize that I would rather have my sanity than my 4.0. I wrote a lot of poetry in the fall of 2012, and got a B in Italian, the first time in my life that I got anything below an A. It felt nice to have the pressure off.
At home, the reality of my leaving became more and more real as the weather got colder. I elected to put up the Christmas tree with my family the Saturday after Thanksgiving rather than go to the VT/UVA rivalry game. My mom ordered me a giant red suitcase that was within TSA regulations. My passport had come. Paperwork mounted for PGS, and we met every couple of weeks to get information and get to know each other. I clung to my friends more, consciously making an effort to be around them for the half of the year that I was present. I came home more frequently than I did the spring of my freshman year as well. The weekend before Thanksgiving I went to Boston to present at an NCHC conference with members of the Honors staff. I parked my car at Roanoke Regional, went through security, had a twenty minute dash through Charlotte International, got into a cab alone, ended up at my hotel unscathed, and saw the sun set at 4:30 PM for the first time in my life. Boston was my first city, which is likely part of the fondness I hold for it. It was my first taste of freedom, a moment of possibility in a metropolitan area. The conference went well.
Still, I had never been away from southwest Virginia for more than a week in my life.
If you’ve kept up with this blog, you’ve seen the struggles that I have had while abroad. I am a creature of comfort and place; I am a compartmentalizer; I like being able to separate myself from stressful situations; and I’m a picky eater. All of these things have made PGS hard for me, in varying degrees, since the beginning. I don’t know how to describe the difficulty of this program. I have not felt that the coursework has been outside my understanding or out of my reach, nor have I worried about my classwork. Living abroad under these circumstances have made it difficult. I miss my family and friends, but I also miss just being able to talk to people in line in the supermarket. I miss having an actual grocery store in my town, not a 30 minute walk or train ride away. I miss wearing more than five shirts, my cowboy boots, real peanut butter, my shampoo, and having a working dryer.
I miss being around people who love me.
I had a recent conversation with a freshman at VT who asked for the pros and cons of PGS, as they were considering the program. I did not know what to tell her. How do you explain that the biggest adventure of your life has left you an emotional wreck at times? How do you explain that personal growth is often borne out of pain and necessity? How do you explain how it feels to look at the Berlin Wall, to navigate the Tube alone, to sit on the Acropolis, to hold yourself before the Sybil Stone at Delphi, to stand in the dungeons of a slave castle in Ghana, to explore the ruins of Pompeii? How do you explain profound loneliness in a group of nearly thirty Virginia Tech Honors students? How do you explain the exhaustion that comes with having to defend your beliefs and ideas every waking moment, as everyone tries to be right all the time? How do you explain 2 AM conversations in your hostel in London that restores your faith in humanity? How do you explain finding yourself by losing yourself?
How do you explain something as complex as an entire semester to someone who is willing to drop thousands of dollars on an experience like this?
I don’t know how to describe PGS to you, any of you.
The first time I was honest with my mom about this program, I ended up sobbing on Skype. I had tried to keep everything sunshiny and perfect, because I have spent money to get as far away from my family as possible, and there is not turning back. There is no forfeiting eighteen credit hours, no running home for a weekend of good sleep, no escaping these same thirty people for the entirety of my time here. I finally had to tell her that it was hard to be in Europe. The movies did not prepare me for this trip. I don’t think anyone could have prepared me for this moment, but I have felt resentful to the 2012 cohorts for presenting it as stunningly positive. It’s life, good and bad. You get out of this program what you wish to, and you leave behind what you wish to. I am excited to leave, but I know that I will take so many things home with me as well.
I am glad that I came to Europe. I don’t know how to go home now, though, and it worries me. My family still worries about me driving alone at night, and yet, I have navigated foreign cities alone for an entire day and evening at a time, with no one knowing where I am or what I am doing, and came out more than just fine. I don’t know how to build trust with my family enough to make them okay with me driving to Charlottesville to see my friends one weekend or enough to know that I have the sense to date someone in college without changing my career goals or master’s program for them; I am far too stubborn to let anyone come between me and my dreams, but they worry that someone will change my mind. I will always be my parents’ baby, and I am far from an adult, but I have grown this trip, and they have only been able to only see it in flashes.
A lot has changed in my absence as well. My sister’s boyfriend’s kids have all but taken over our house and stolen my parents’ hearts. We got a new roof, stove, and microwave. My dog is four months older now. My friends are a semester wiser, their relationship statuses and dreams shifting. They have made new friends, too. A few of my closest friends are graduating in May, and I missed their last hurrahs at VT. News has come and gone across my computer screen, shootings, bombings, explosions, and a host of other things to make me hope that the world will stop going crazy one day.
I will arrive home in seventeen days. I will be 20 years and 7 months old. I will have touched seven countries in my absence, including one in Africa. I will have traveled more than most people in my town and family, than most of my friends at VT. I will have taken thousands of pictures and filled notebooks with poetry and thoughts, with scenes from stories yet born. I will have not seen my family for sixteen weeks.
I never expected to be here. Perhaps it is why I have not strived to make it perfect. I am not paying for the majority of this trip (very few of us are), and there was never any pressure from my parents to go abroad; indeed, my daddy was against the idea in the beginning. No one expected me to go to Europe, although I often feel the pressure to be great from staff at VT. I refuse to say that a situation is good if it is not, and I refuse to keep people in my life who are toxic. It makes me enemies, but it keeps me sane. I spent years smiling when I wanted to scream and hooding my face from the world, and I have overcorrected immensely to being brutally honest and open with my issues. It is a balancing act that I have not yet mastered, being a positive person with a realistic world view, and I have to check myself from being too negative or blissfully overlooking stunning flaws in a situation or person.
I never expected to be here. I never truly expected to have my poems published anywhere, to have faculty who care about me, or have the respect of my peers for my writing. I never expected to find such a welcoming home at Virginia Tech, or that anyone would ever know my name there; my mom likes to pick on me for what I said as I was graduating, that I was excited to go somewhere that I could be anonymous. People with dreams never go unnoticed, I’ve decided, once they start to go for them.
I want to spend next summer in the UK studying somewhere. I want to go north for graduate school, into an MFA or Ph.D. program that I can grow in. But right now, I just want to go home.