The pros and cons of traveling alone
Study Abroad Columnist
Traveling alone is a hallmark of study-abroad experiences. You could fly to your destination alone, take public transport solo or even go on a walk by yourself. College itself is an exercise of being by yourself, perhaps for the first time. In both traditional college and study-abroad situations, you chose to change your environment. I chose to adapt to three different places during my undergraduate career, and it has taught me a lot about myself.
One of the most enjoyable parts of college culture is freedom of choice — classes, meals and favorite spots to get coffee are now your responsibility. Freedom is thrilling because you can choose exactly what you are interested in. The exact same idea applies to travel or study abroad — if you’re flying solo, the choice is all yours for how to structure your day. The beauty of this is that you pursue exactly what you are interested in, rather than sacrificing your interest for the convenience or opinion of a group. For me, this means cloistering myself in a big art museum for as long as I please. (How I structure my alone time will vary widely from everyone else.)
A new environment poses specific challenges that you’ll iron out upon meeting them, and slowly they fade into your memory. Getting lost is a huge fear of mine — I plotted my exact routes to each of my classes first semester because I was determined to not ask for help, which is a silly thing to get stuck on. Knowing where you are allows you to move through space with confidence, but it takes stepping out nervously a few or several times to acclimate yourself to the new area. I spent my first few days in The Hague walking around the block, then one block radius further, until I knew where I was going. Retracing your steps is like trying to memorize something — it takes repeat exposure to understand.
Problem-solving occurs everywhere, but it won’t happen if you are too timid to approach the problem. Figuring out a map, or an airport or a subway system may be anxiety-inducing, but assess what needs to be done in the situation to get you from point A to point B, and follow through as best you know how. Be prepared to make mistakes but be resolute in your choices — I have confidently boarded a tram going in the wrong direction, and messed up train-ticket purchases. However, now I double check the tram map every time, and now I know how to contact the Dutch train service in case I make more errors.
There is a social stigma to being by yourself. Humans often have a pack mentality, and we perceive a person on their own as different, odd or even pitiable. I struggle sometimes with my self-perception while alone in a crowded place, because I think those intrusive thoughts that others are noticing my aloneness. There is no shame in sharing time with yourself, as being an introvert and attending college has taught me. The perceived awkwardness is fictitious. Life in the future may require solo work or travel, so build courage early.
Loneliness and homesickness are one of the most acknowledged factors of college. You will encounter them at some point in life. They are unpredictable and hard to prepare for, and I’ve been stuck in a rut with them in both Delaware and the Netherlands. Pushing it away or smothering the feeling with hyperactivity are two ways I have coped. However, sometimes you have to let it in, as with all emotion. After letting emotional waves occur, as they ebb in and out, I remind myself how hard I worked to send myself on study abroad and that this is the place I want to be right now. Perhaps this is a paper-thin solution, but it propels you forward to the glorious, adventurous moments.
“Traveling” is a substitute for many verbs that could appear before the adjective “alone.” It could be buying textbooks for your first college class, or driving by yourself for the first time, having a conversation in a different language unaided. Sometimes doing something alone is a stamp of pride that you and only you carried it out. There exists the positive outcome of personal pride for achieving something yourself. Travel can be an act of pride. Being a college student can be an act of pride. You yourself are the only one who can walk your path in a fulfilling manner. You will be surrounded by others along the way, but the courage and the fortitude for your plans is your alone.