College life isn’t as easy as it looks

Time abroad by myself prepared me for life in college


Abby Bunch

photo illustration

Story by Maria Rangel, staff writer

The second semester just started, and an epidemic is rampant in high schools across the nation: not COVID-19, senioritis.

With more late grades than they can count and a streak of tardies due to daily Starbucks runs, seniors are coasting through the last months of their high school careers. Their sights are set on college life: that independent, carefree lifestyle depicted in so many young adult films. Many students don’t realize, however, that college life isn’t going to be just peaches and cream.

An undesirable living situation, having to manage a new schedule and dealing with stress independently are common obstacles students face in college. This semester, I spent a month out of the country, and my time abroad has taught me how to deal with the difficulties of being away from home. 

Around November, with the onset of the winter months, a bad case of seasonal depression crept up on me unexpectedly. My parents noticed that I just couldn’t handle going to school while feeling depressed and helpless all the time, so they decided to send me to Colombia, where most of my family lives and the warm subtropical climate would surely ease the stress from the past month’s dark and dreary weather. 

I arrived on Dec. 25 to a bright, lively city brimming with culture. I would stay at my aunt’s, a quiet home nestled in the mountains, shielded from the hustle and bustle of the city. The first week was smooth sailing: I went shopping at the mall, played board games and watched movies with my cousins, sunbathed at the poolside and had plenty of time to read in the garden in the company of dragonflies and bird calls. 

However, I quickly realized that the cultural difference would be overwhelming. I was expected to pay back my living expenses by sweeping and mopping the floors, washing dishes and doing laundry. Apart from that, the daily schedule in a Colombian household is drastically different from that of an American one. A main factor is meals— many customs are centered around family, and breakfast and lunchtime are meant to be enjoyed in the company of the whole family. Upon waking up, one is expected to head to the kitchen ASAP for breakfast, which the mother or the maid has already whipped up. Lunch is an even bigger deal: the table is set with place mats, salt, cups, utensils and sugar for the juice. Adults always leave work to go home and eat with the family. Having been used to rising and eating breakfast whenever I pleased, and making my own lunch to eat it in my room, this new schedule was hard to adapt to. 

I knew this change in schedule was comparable to what I will face in college. Sure, I won’t have to enjoy lunch in the company of mom, dad, little brother and the dog, but I will have to adapt to other changes. For one, the difference in the class schedule is far less restrictive, which means having to be more responsible with managing free time. The bigger workload, jobs and internships are yet other factors I have to balance into my college schedule. 

The second week, I faced a bigger obstacle: having to live with (not to mention respect) someone I didn’t necessarily like. My uncle is a proud, stubborn man, and we would often have conversations which ended with me feeling stupid and insecure. Once, I let my emotions get the better of me. I confronted him, jumping up at the table and accusing him of talking too much. Immediately after, regret trickled in; I was a guest at his home and I was obligated to respect the host no matter what. I dashed to my room and soaked my face in tears, enveloped by guilt. My head swirled with doubts — “Maybe I should have never come here,” I thought. 

Curled up in a corner of my room, I realized that this was the cost of living in a new environment. I would have to learn how to manage my emotions in a mature way. In life, one inevitably meets people they don’t like, but these people have to be respected either way. You can’t just lash out at an employer or boss when they please; they would never keep a job that way.

I also knew that I was going to get nowhere in life if I didn’t face things that scare me. That’s another side about being part of the real world. One has to step out of their comfort zone and take the bull by the horns; that’s the only way people grow. After having this realization that evening, I dreaded going downstairs, but I mustered up courage by taking my fear as a learning opportunity. I apologized to my uncle, and a huge load was lifted off my shoulders. 

The most important aspect of my stay in Colombia was how much I learned about my emotions. Living in a drastically new environment took its toll on me; after the first two weeks, cultural shock ran over me like a thousand sharp nails. My aunt’s house is so different from American houses — open, blindingly bright and breezy. I realized I actually didn’t like it because it was so different.

I was usually home alone because my cousins were always busy. My unfamiliarity with the living environment and a mixture of loneliness with boredom created a well of negative thoughts in my mind. I missed my parents, my friends, and my own bed. I was constantly under a shadow of unease. I cried and cried, but no one was there to wipe away my tears. 

After suffering through multiple crying sessions for days, I realized that was no way of living. I was only stressed out and depressed because my thoughts were forcing me to be. I decided to take steps to calm myself down instead of longing for someone else to do it for me. I changed my perspective on the living place. I thought, “I may not be used to it, but it’s bright and happy.” I learned how to cope with my boredom and loneliness. I told myself, “It’s better this way because I have a lot of classwork to do. I should look forward to this weekend when my cousins have time to hang out.” Step by step, I learned how to manage my emotions all on my own. 

Before my visit to Colombia, I expected the only differences to be a slightly warmer climate and no parents. I didn’t think my visit would turn into a valuable learning experience. In the span of two months, I learned a million things about myself, and I matured exponentially. The changes in the schedule, the people and the living environment caused me to ponder the differences to prepare for in college. Going into college can be an exciting time, but learning to deal with its thousand stressors can make the experience that much more gratifying.