This post was contributed by Global Ambassador Frances Garnett, an IRG and theater & dance major studying abroad in Brussels, Belgium. Read more about Frances’s experience.
Being in quarantine has given me a lot of time to think, and lately I’ve been wondering: what is the point of study abroad?
And more importantly: did I miss the point?
I’d been living in Brussels, Belgium, for only two months before the severity of COVID-19 led to many students from all around the world coming home early. I’d dreamed about returning to Brussels, the city where I was born, for ages – ever since I decided to come to UT for college – and was heartbroken when I got the news that I had to return home.
Maybe quarantine is starting to get to me, but I decided to make a list to come up with an answer to my questions.
Was the point of study abroad…
- to check off a bucket list of new countries and cities I always wanted to see? I was so thankful that I had spontaneous friends who went to Luxembourg City, Ghent, and Bruges with me. I was also proud that I decided to be completely independent and solo-travelled for the first time to Amsterdam, and then to Cardiff, Edinburgh, and Fife to see old friends. So, I can check that off my list.
- to make lasting connections with locals? I did that, too – I still video-call my program leader, Sylvie, the sweetest woman with the most gorgeous hair I’ve even seen. I also stay in touch with the people from the theater where I interned through our Facebook group, where we post old pictures of the play we were working on and make quarantine jokes.
- to find a local café where you became a regular? I did this, too!! My friends and I would take over the Café Léopold Presse before and after almost every class and order its wonderful hot chocolate, avocado toast, praline marble cake… It was such a whimsical place.
- to become bilingual? This one hurts. Even after taking four classes, all in French, and practicing with my friends, I still felt so lost in my internship. I was a director’s assistant at the theatre company Les Riches Claires, and no matter how bubbly and goofy everyone was (theater people really have a culture of their own), I still felt so lost. I got through those first two weeks showing up with a smile on my face every day, reminding myself that this part was the hardest and that it would get better. Sadly, it (the situation and my French) never got that chance, since Belgium went under lockdown at the end of that second week. And yet, it’s amazing what only two months—even only two weeks—of immersion can do to your language skills. I may not be bilingual (yet!), but I am much better than I was in January.
Although making this list helped, I am till in mourning. On paper, I did a lot and saw a lot just by being in Brussels, but I still felt that it wasn’t enough and curse myself for the mornings, afternoons, and nights that I spent inside procrastinating on my work or just watching a movie. Even when I look over all my new photos in the hopes of making an album, I wish I’d taken more. I wish I’d been more obsessed with the way one obscure, random building blended into the next. I wish I was less camera shy and had more pictures of myself traipsing around Brussels, blissfully unaware of what was coming. I wish I’d gone to that bar by Porte de Halle that had a free Bachata class every Monday one last time, instead of thinking that there would always be next week. I wish I’d been more entranced by all the tiny stone bodies embedded into the buildings in the Grand Place and that I’d stared down every single one of their faces until I could have written a history of each tiny personality.
But the coronavirus didn’t “steal” this formative college experience from me – I still had one. Looking over all my old photos reminds me of the small, vital moments I’d forgotten. I’d prioritized seeing my family in the UK and visited them for the first time by myself. I got to have dinner with the woman who used to babysit me and my twin sister when we were babies, and I met her own toddler twins in an adorable full circle moment. I registered as an EU resident in Belgium, and now my permanent record will always show that for two months, I was officially a Brussels local.
I always knew I didn’t want to return from study abroad with just a bunch of brag-able moments and ticks on a to-do list. Instead, I returned with a new sense of self. I got to live a slower life in Brussels. Usually at UT, I dedicate my life to the theater department in the Winship building, spending every evening in rehearsal and my weekends catching up on all the work I was behind on.
In Brussels, my program made sure that my classes were comprehensive and challenging (I now have a lot of newfound knowledge about why Belgium is the way it is today that I unfortunately love to spout off and share with anyone who is even the tiniest bit curious about the country), but they also gave us plenty of free time to educate ourselves on how to be a Belgian local.
Even through my internship, I rarely had take-home work, so I experienced a completely new phenomenon: real down time – not just down time where you’re procrastinating on your work, but times where I learned what my soul pulls me to do when I don’t have a care in the world. In the end, I felt like I’d lived more and explored more of my surroundings in two months than in the whole of my college career, and quickly came to view Brussels as a (present and possibly future) home.
I liked this new me, and I don’t believe that I’ll lose her now that I’m back. I’m glad I didn’t treat my study abroad as an exotic free-for-all adventure where I could make myself into the “exciting” person I sometimes feel I need to be before returning to “normal” life in the U.S. If I don’t like the way I’m living in Austin, constantly glued to my work and still ignorant of so much of what this city has to offer, then I that’s a change I need to make in order to keep the “Belgian Frances” alive.