Get Lost and Find Yourself

February 12, 2018
A photo of the street in Scotland.

In everyone’s college career, there comes a time when people start to reflect on how they’ve spent the last few years. Where were the places and who were the people they’ll want to remember twenty years from now? People recall all the parties they went to where they met some of the most interesting characters, or all the hours they’ve spent sitting in the library cramming for an exam. Maybe they think about the basketball games that had them at the edge of their seats, or the professor that completely changed the way they thought about something. For me, I think about the four months I spent in Scotland last fall that totally transformed how I looked at UVA. In the two and a half years I’ve been a student at this University, the best thing I ever did was leave Grounds and call another school home for a semester.

This time last year I was a really insecure second year with absolutely no idea of what my place was at this university. I had done everything “right”: I joined a sorority, I had gotten involved in different organizations on Grounds, and I had managed to get pretty decent grades. Despite this mild success in conforming to what I thought was the mold of the ideal UVA student, I didn’t feel at home in Charlottesville. I felt like I was on the outside looking in, and I wanted to take a step back in order to find out who I was supposed to be at this school. I applied to a study abroad program in Edinburgh, Scotland knowing full well that it would be a very cold and dark four months in a U.K. city with a healthy dose of annual precipitation. I needed a change, though, so in September I got on a plane and flew to Scotland.

I spent the first month counting down the days until I could go home. Edinburgh was so different from Charlottesville, and although I was in the middle of a major U.K. city surrounded by thousands of people, there were times I felt really alone. I questioned my decision to leave. Why was this experience nothing like what I had seen in the various Facebook albums of the other girls in my sorority? They had gone abroad and absolutely killed the social media game. They were in a new country every weekend and seemed to be having the best time of their lives. Why was this not happening for me? I went out in the city and met some really great people, yet there was still this level of disconnect I felt with my experience. I didn’t feel like I had a community, and it was hard to adjust without having a solid group of friends in the city. I confided in one of my flatmates, Hannah, a spunky girl from London who seemed to have a carefree attitude about everything. I told her about how I felt as if I might’ve been doing everything wrong, about how I hadn’t found a solid group of friends with whom I could travel and go out to trendy bars and restaurants. “I don’t think there is ONE way of spending your semester abroad. There is no right and no wrong so just make it what you want,” she told me.

A photo of Maddie in a field in Scotland.

Of course she was right. I had wasted so much time trying to mimic everything that I had seen other students do on social media that I hadn’t thought about how I really wanted to spend my time there. I took a step back and reevaluated why I had gone to Scotland in the first place. I wanted to know who I was and what it was that I really valued spending my time on rather than who I thought I was supposed to be, according to the image I had constructed of the perfect study abroad experience. My time abroad didn’t have to be for anyone else, and from that point on I decided to get out of my head and do whatever I wanted without concern for anyone else’s experience in Edinburgh. I wanted to get lost in the city and feel like I really knew the place, so that’s exactly what I did. I spent hours wandering around, finding second-hand bookstores and coffee shops where I could study or listen to music. I stopped looking for the places that would make the best Instagram post, and started looking for places people didn’t think to explore. All of my money went to thrift stores or museums where I escaped on random Wednesday afternoons. I took trips to some of the most beautiful places I had ever seen: the Highlands, Skye, the Lake District. I took spontaneous solo trips outside of the city and connected with people I would have never thought I would talk to prior to going abroad. I was making a place for myself there, rather than waiting for things to fall into place on their own. I built a community and soon enough I felt like I was living in Edinburgh instead of visiting. I started to  feel like I was becoming part of the country, as if I had been living there for years.

But there was something still missing. I wasn’t surrounded by the people I loved. My friends and my family, the people I had begun to take for granted back in Charlottesville, occupied all of my thoughts at the end of my time in Scotland, and I could not wait to get back to the U.S. to be reunited with them. The semester had put everything back into perspective for me, and I understood that UVA, despite its flaws and imperfections, was where I was meant to be. The people there were my people, and I was eager to go back to school with new experiences and a new outlook.

In the short time I have been back, things have definitely felt very different, but not necessarily in a bad way. I don’t have as much time to myself. I have found it harder to have those moments where I can get lost in Charlottesville because I always run into someone I know. I think I’m ok with this, though, because I’m never lonely here. I’ve made a point to spend time with those people who really bring me joy at this school, and I’ve kept in touch with those people who made my time abroad so incredible. It’s the community you surround yourself with and the people you choose to call your friends that make your time here incredible. Any insecurity I have had about having a “place” here or not being the ideal UVA seem so silly when I think about those people who have made my time here so special.

So if I could give one piece of advice to any UVA student it would be: leave this place... and come back. Get out of the bubble and lose yourself if you want to know just what a privilege it is to go to UVA. This school can sometimes feel like the most boring, unwelcoming, stressful place on earth, but this is a place that challenges you to be the best version of yourself possible. It has allowed for me to meet some of the best people on earth, and for the past two and a half years it has been one of my homes. I’m proud I can come back here after getting lost.


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