By Anna Miller
I took off for New Zealand expecting to come back a different person (and to meet Peter Jackson, if I was lucky enough.) Everyone talks about study abroad as a grand, life-changing experience, so I assumed that if I went abroad an apple, I’d come back an orange, dissatisfied with anything less than a flat white and driving on the left side of the road. Indeed, I fell so in love with New Zealand that I avoided homesickness for the whole semester. But because of the transformation expectation, I became nervous when I got too excited over anything Wisconsin-related. I never thought I cared much for Madison until I saw another student wearing a Badger shirt, or found a restaurant in Queenstown called “Fat Badgers” or chatted with a bus driver in Waitomo who had been to the dairy state. I felt pride in wearing my Packers shirt to the bars in Wellington, and I was thrilled when a man passed us on a hike on the Tongariro Pass and, upon seeing my Green Bay sweatshirt, cheered enthusiastically for the team 8,000 miles away. I was even lucky enough to visit with my cousin who was touring with his band and happened to play a set in Auckland. I couldn’t help this excitement and yet it felt wrong. After all, I was abroad! I thought that I shouldn’t be dwelling on where I came from but where I was and finding all those life-changing experiences.
But that’s the thing with studying abroad. You don’t fundamentally change. You don’t escape who you’ve been for 20 years, or the experiences you’ve carried with you. You don’t come back an orange. What happens instead, amongst all the new perspectives you gain and new customs you adapt to, is that you connect with yourself in ways that are just not possible if you restrict yourself to one context and one set of experiences. New Zealand was my new context to connect with, and even though I didn’t achieve the grand transformation I was expecting, I came back with two places I could call home and yet still feeling more grounded than before. To me, that’s what the experience was. To liberate myself from a single context, and to ground myself in who I am, rather than just where my feet happen to fall.
This article will be published in the Spring 2016 print issue of Souvenirs.