So this is probably the biggest, most exciting, most impactful thing to happen in my life so far.
In just over two weeks, I leave my southside Chicago neighborhood to realize my dream of the last 2.5 years: studying abroad in Geneva, Switzerland.
I think it’s fair to say that this study abroad program is the reason I chose to attend Boston University. My college admission process was rather disappointing. I applied to about nine schools and got into only three (waitlisted at two others). I wasn’t really surprised, given that many of these schools were reaches for me; but only The Best schools offered astrophysics as a major, so I tried for The Best. The schools where I was admitted were my safety schools.
After all my acceptances had rolled in (and all my rejections), my mom and I went on a three-day journey to find my home for the next four years. I already favored another school when we got to BU’s campus–a potpourri of mismatched buildings bordering Commonwealth Avenue and hugging the Charles River. I wasn’t impressed with the “campus”, but I do love living in a city and there was, like, 300 square feet of grass so I figured I could make it work. Still, I remained uninspired throughout BU’s admitted student reception and major fair. At the fair, an enthusiastic physics professor invited me to come to the science lab tour after the fair, but I decided to attend the study abroad information session instead. This seemingly-inconsequential choice proved to be critical in my final decision.
Study abroad was a hugely influential aspect in my college search. Both my parents have advanced degrees but I was still the first of my siblings to go through the college application process. I wasn’t quite sure what to look for in a school. I didn’t even know why “research opportunities” for science undergrads was so important until, like, November of my senior year. But I always knew I wanted to be able to study abroad.
From what I learned about programs at other schools, spending a semester abroad would be complicated for astrophysics majors. In most cases, the astrophysics curriculum involved enough classes to count as a double major, leaving little wiggle room for course placement. All upper-level courses carry prerequisites and some are offered only once a year or even once every two years, meaning one class out-of-place could be disastrous if I wanted to graduate in four years. A rare exception was a shiny new program at BU designed specifically for physics majors: the Geneva Physics Program.
I heard about the program at the study abroad info session and I was sold–BU was the place for me. Two days after returning home, I paid my deposit and accepted my place in the Boston University Class of 2018. I was officially a Terrier and I had one primary goal in mind: to go to Geneva my junior year.
What followed was two and a half years of novel experiences and immense challenges. I wasn’t “in love” with my school, nor was I “in love” with my major. Physics proved to be far more grueling than I expected and my lack of passion for the subject made it difficult to keep going in the face of hardship. About once a semester (usually around the time of an impending midterm) I would have what I have come to call an “existential crisis”, in which I cried a lot and questioned my choice in classes, major, and school. But I met lots of wonderful people in my major and still had that single-minded goal of making it to Geneva, so I pressed on. My grades were far from stellar and my confidence in the subject was even worse, but I was determined to be one of the lucky 15 to spend a semester in Switzerland.
My first five semesters at BU have been demanding, to say the least. I didn’t make it easy on myself; I’ve acted in a theatrical production every semester of school so far and I’ve worked no less than two work-study jobs at any given point in time. I knew I would competing against my classmates for a spot on this trip, many of whom clearly demonstrated a greater command of physics than I–a fact that would certainly be reflected by their superior transcripts. I had spent a lot of blood, sweat, and tears trying to make my application essay responses stand out, crossing my fingers that my ability to form complete paragraphs might prove my competency. Long story short, I wasn’t feeling particularly confident about my chances of getting accepted to the program by the time I submitted my application in mid-September.
But I got in. Against all odds, I got in. Despite the fact that I sometimes still wonder how, I got in. And that’s all that matters.
Like I said, this is probably the biggest thing to happen in my life so far. It’s the culmination of over two years of hard work and stress and tears and challenges and group study sessions and long nights toiling over problem sets and confusing lectures and boring labs and moments of clarity and determination and grit.
For the last two months, I’ve been bombarded with the same questions by friends, family, and colleagues: “When do you leave?” “Can you bring me back chocolate?” “Where are you going again? Sweden? Oh, Switzerland? Yeah, I knew it was one of those S-W countries….” But easily the most frequently asked question is, “Are you excited?”
The answer? Yes, of course, I’m ridiculously excited. I’ve only been wanting to do this for my entire adult life! But I’m also terrified. And I tell them this. Most people respond with, “Oh, you’ll be fine, don’t worry about it. You’ll have an amazing time!” I am pretty confident that everything will be fine and that I will indeed have an amazing time, but I’m still scared. Mostly, I’m scared about my academic performance abroad, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms that I’ll crack open another time.
For now, here are a few lists summarizing my apprehensions and anticipations for my study abroad experience:
Things I’m worried about:
- Taking physics classes in French.
- Failing my physics classes.
- Passing my physics classes but not really learning anything.
- Not being qualified to work at CERN.
- Not being able to afford basic necessities.
- Not being able to afford souvenirs or trips.
- Running out of money in general.
- Expensive coffee. 😦
- The language barrier.
- Not being able to maintain my exercise routine.
- Hating everyone in my program by July.
- Breaking up with my boyfriend.
- Difficulty accessing dogs, probably.
- Getting pick-pocketed.
- Getting abducted (see Taken (2008)).
- Getting lost.
- Not having access to a library or affordable book store.
- Not having a steady source of income.
- Being homesick.
- Having to buy my own food and cook for myself.
- Disturbing my snobby Swiss neighbors who apparently don’t like loud noises.
- Not having the complete “study abroad experience”.
A lot of these things are irrational to worry about (if I was going to hate everyone in my program, it probably would’ve happened already) and some have already been resolved (I already combed through the University of Geneva library catalog and I am content with the available selection of reading material). Also, my boyfriend is also in the same study abroad program (he is also, conveniently, in the same major), so breaking up with him while on the trip would be pretty awkward. It’s unlikely, but anything can happen. More on that dynamic in another post.
On a lighter note…
Things I’m excited for:
- Cheese and chocolate.
- Living in one of the most beautiful countries on Earth.
- Skiing (or snowboarding).
- Cheese and chocolate.
- Going on runs around the lake.
- Living with my best friends.
- Being there with my boyfriend.
- Maybe getting a tattoo??????? (more to come, stay tuned)
- Cheese and chocolate.
- Meeting new people.
- Speaking French.
- Long plane rides and train rides.
- Cheese and chocolate.
Obviously, my fears far outnumber my excitements. I’m not sure whether or not this is natural for a pre-departure study abroad student but I don’t really care. I’ve accepted that I have some trepidations about the trip but I’m going to lean into them, make the most of it.
With the above anxieties and excitements in mind, I have compiled a small list of my hopes and aspirations for the next 24 weeks.
Goals for Geneva:
- Always agree to a new opportunity—go for the bigger life.
- Remember that this isn’t all about the academics.
- Hike at least once a month.
- Stick to an exercise routine.
- Eat well.
- Avoid wasting money.
- Join a club.
- Make friends.
- Become immersed.
- Don’t be broke.
Of course, I shall update you, my dear readers, on my progress with each of these goals as I proceed through my six months of life in Geneva and beyond. For now, I’m gonna enjoy my last two weeks at home where I only have to pay $5 for a mediocre cup of coffee.
Thanks for traveling with me,