Coming back from a full year abroad, I pictured my first few weeks at Middlebury as a disheartening series of handshakes and reintroductions–something along the lines of “Hi, I’m Zach, I used to be your friend before I went away for a year.” What I had forgotten was that I was not the only one with such fears. With over 60% of the class studying abroad for at least a semester, my worries were shared by just about everyone, even the students that had chosen to stay on campus.
I walked into the dining hall the first night with nightmares taken directly from every bad Molly Ringwald movie. She’s holding a lunch tray, she looks around the cafeteria, sees no friendly faces, hears murmuring that may or may not refer to how awkward she looks, just standing there; she breaks down, runs screaming–it’s terrifying.
My experience was a little different. First, Middlebury no longer has lunch trays (promotes more reasonable portions, less waste, fewer chances for students to hurt themselves riding makeshift sleds during the winter). Second, the first thing I saw in the cafeteria were old friends bounding toward me, attempting to give me awkward hugs that didn’t ruin their shirts with tomato sauce. That scene has repeated itself for most of the past two weeks. As more and more students made their way to campus, I found everything fitting into place, almost effortlessly.
The same goes for the academic experience. Studying in England was, I’m sure, not like studying in another language. Yet the tutorial system at Oxford is a distinct approach with distinct practices and expectations. Once again, I found myself making my way back into the coursework at Middlebury with surprising comfort. It was almost as if I had once gone to school here.
It is now clear that the most difficult part of the experience, at least in my case, will have little to do with social or academic reintegration. Far more trying, and perhaps far more significant in the long run, will be avoiding a total reintegration and the excessive comfort that entails. That is, failing to apply the lessons and experience gained abroad to my life here. It’s shockingly easy to get back into the same habits, to do the same things as before. But if studying abroad has any lasting value (and I think most students you find here would argue, rather passionately, that it does), then something should change. This may require a more deliberate approach than I anticipated. It may require asking myself, when thinking about preparing an essay for example: “How did I do this in England, and how might that improve my work here?”
If you have an image of me sitting at my desk talking to himself while looking back at old essays, then you’re spot on. I have had little trouble finding my groove again. The main goal now is finding that balance between comfort and complacency. Somewhere in the middle is the sweet spot. I’ll be sure to let you know when I find it.