Transitioning Between Semesters as a Yearlong Student

The most difficult part of studying abroad for a year is the transition between semesters. Saying goodbye to the friends you’ve made and welcoming strangers into a world you’ve come to call home can be challenging. In this article, a USAC yearlong alumna talks about how to embrace this transition.

This is How We Grow

(Dedicated to those who have returned home)

Imagine this: you fly halfway across the world to live in a beautiful foreign country where you don’t speak the language. You’re intentionally uncomfortable. You signed up for this. You’re lost. You need friends, stat, and more importantly, you need people with whom to share the indisputable fact that breakfast burritos are a perfection worthy of countless praises. You’re thrown into this new life with fifty strangers who are equally flustered by the change in scenery, and through this shared experience of travel and uncertainty, you become friends. Great friends. Best friends. You grow closer to these people than you ever thought possible, forming friendships that belong in clichéd, overproduced teen movies or pressed between the pages of Nicholas Sparks books, not your life. You fall in love with being abroad, with travel, with your town, with the people, with who you are and how you feel when you’re here. Your world is suddenly an R.E.M. song, teeming with shiny happy people holding hands. Everything is perfect…. Until it isn’t.


One day, suitcases are hauled from their dusty, nearly forgotten homes from under too small twin-sized beds and given restored purpose. Clothes are rolled, folded, cramped, and sometimes sacrificed to fit those bottles of olive oil to bring home for yourself and loved ones. In a strange, reverse instance of Cinderella-at-Midnight, under the pretense of nostalgia, the cobblestone streets become charming, as do the washing machines that flood your bathroom, the way the entire city shuts down for three hours in the middle of the day when all you need is a kabob, and suddenly even the woeful lack of a dryer is somehow endearing.

Four months flew by, just like they said they would. You miss everything before you even step one foot toward the door with suitcases in tow, from the pigeon coos to the ambulance sirens, from the shoddy wifi to the communication barrier. You miss the way this place makes you feel like you are simultaneously utterly helpless and fiercely self-reliant. Like you’re exactly where you belong.

You leave, promising the city, your friends, and yourself that one day, soon, you’ll return, pressing that small seed of doubt deep within your chest for fear of tearing up and ruining the happiness of this beautiful place that you have grown to call home.

Or, if you’re like me, you unsuccessfully hold back tears as you watch the people you love wheel their 49.9-pound suitcases toward airport shuttles and drive away into the early morning light.

This, my friends, is how we grow.

We hurt. A lot. We miss people and places and experiences more than we ever thought possible. We cry. We tell our stories of our time abroad to the people we love from what used to be our only home and wonder why our joys and memories seem to fall on deaf ears. We are torn between two countries, two homes, and two families because the people we studied abroad with are just that- family.

My solace? My words of so-called wisdom I wish to share although I am in no way fit to give advice is this: It hurts because it matters. We’ve done something right, friends. We’ve lived, we’ve grown, and through this experience, we will continue to grow. We will always have this little town and its winding side streets, our favorite gelato, and most importantly, we’ll always have each other. We will always share this time together. As always, life is about the people, not the place, but I’m so thankful to have shared this place with you.

Kayla Pennington studied abroad in Viterbo, Italy. You can read more about her adventures in Italy on her blog.