By Rhiannon Jones (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, USA)
The best time to write a reflection piece is probably when it’s still fresh. For me, that would have been around the time of my last exam in Illinois two months ago. The problem with studying abroad (although there aren’t many) is that you never seem to have the time to sit around; to appreciate that what’s going on around you is actually pretty crazy. Two months ago I was sitting six time zones away, significantly warmer, bitching about how I’m going to fail finals. Now I’m revelling over the fact that I can’t believe its over.
My last lecture at Illinois, as if the occasion wasn’t momentous enough, was also my last ever as an undergraduate (hopefully). It took place in a room about the size of a particularly cramped hospital waiting room, with a lecturer talking about shaving as a suitable analogy for enzymes. It was fairly underwhelming really and no tears were shed that day, although one person did awkwardly stand up to shake the lecturers hand, forgetting that we would see him in a week’s time for the final. We followed that touching moment up with one of our last acts of tourism on campus. We recreated the photos we took on the quad our first day in the States. If you look closely you can see how much I’ve grown as a person.
Three seasons on the quad: first day in August, the middle of a snowstorm and after our last lecture in May.
There are so many things that I will miss about not going back to UIUC. The campus itself is full of beautiful buildings, grass lawns and the iconic Alma Mater (‘School Mother’) statue that contrast so heavily with the 70s builds that scatter Manchester. I will miss themed nights out with the lacrosse team, where tight and bright isn’t just a suggestion but a requirement. A campus where it’s not a real event until you all have matching t-shirts. I’ll miss the college shops that sell literally anything and everything. You want an ugly Christmas sweater with Illini on the front? Done. An orange and blue baby grow? It’s all here. A slightly excessive Fighting Illini dog toy? Yours for $17. I’ll miss the restaurant that indulged my new found love for Mexican food that just won’t be satisfied in the UK. And in winter I’ll miss the snow on the quad.
Before I got on the plane, before I’d even handed in my application I found people are so keen to talk about their time abroad. They’ll tell you about how you’ll grow up and change as a person. How you’ll see the world differently and it’ll feel that everyone left behind stood still in comparison. How putting it in words will never quite explain what happened in those few months. The implied pressure is that this should be the best year of your life. I won’t deny it has been amazing, but there’s also been points where I’ve been so stressed out I’ve been hours from just emailing home and giving up. To put uni life on hold and turn up somewhere else completely alone can be hard. To pick up another way of learning and expect for it to go seamlessly is tough. If anyone ever reads this and wants to undertake this ridiculous life decision for themselves, just know that sometimes it’s ok not to be ok. There’s no beauty in the world if we got rid of all the ugly.
When booking my flights back to London, I asked whether I should delay my return a few more days so I could fly via Iceland, a decision that was greeted with enthusiasm by my friends rather than questions. I never actually made it there because I spent all my money travelling down the West Coast instead (oops) but the best thing was being able to surround myself with amazing people who want to make the most of the opportunities there for them, who throw themselves into the things they enjoy with genuinely infectious enthusiasm and dedication. Those people who aren’t satisfied with only travelling the US, but want to go further afield and do bigger and better the next time. I don’t know what my next big step is; I’ve been planning studying abroad so long that I never needed to think much after that. But whatever I end up doing, if I’ve come through this, I’m sure everything else will be fine.
As a small note, I do also love Canada. Here’s some cool graffiti seen at the uni, the Toronto sign, a clock in the Distillery District and me with the skyline.