In mid-October, I sat on the cold tile floor of a beach house in North Carolina with twenty fellow future educators. It was the end of a relaxing day in the sand, and our two directors had gathered us together to discuss our goals for our upcoming semester abroad. The twenty-one of us who had grown close as a cohort were about to be split apart to study in Argentina, Spain, England, and New Zealand. We would no longer share every experience together and would forever be divided by our choice of destination.
Our directors spoke to us extensively about disconnecting from social media, so we could fully experience our time abroad. I shrugged off this advice, thinking it didn’t apply to me because I didn’t have any social media accounts. They were worried we would suffer from a common study abroad illness – FOMO, otherwise known as fear of missing out. Their biggest concern was that we would be so absorbed with the life going on at our university that we would miss out on what was around us. What they didn’t prepare us for was missing the people within our program who had chosen a different place to study.
When we made our separate decisions about where we wanted to study abroad, Maddie and I shared the same major but didn’t interact much outside of mandatory meetings. However, over the course of one semester, we grew to be incredibly close. As December neared, the realization that we would be in completely different hemispheres was setting in. We spent about a week preparing to say goodbye to each other. We understood that the type of friendship we had shared that semester was coming to an end and would be met by a different kind when we returned to school the following fall. Neither of us thought we wouldn’t be friends, but we accepted that the way we “did life” together would be different.
I left for Oxford a month before Maddie would begin packing for New Zealand. Shortly before leaving, I gave into the temptation and downloaded Instagram to my phone. It was so out of character for me that I received several texts from surprised friends and my sister ran into the room in disbelief exclaiming, “You got an Instagram?!”
I started out just wanting to see what my friends were doing during their time abroad, but over time I wanted to participate in the fun of uploading my own pictures. Eventually, social media became the source of my loneliness. I came to Oxford with seven others from my school and without my two closest friends. While the time difference can make it difficult to connect, it has kept us from being so consumed with updating each other that we can experience our surroundings.
I knew Maddie and I were each going into study abroad losing our closest friend at school. We would both be without our normal support system, and that was going to be difficult for us. However, Maddie built up new friendships with the people she was with while I put my life on standby. It was as if the entire semester was just a brief pause before we could get back to normal activities.
I wouldn’t have noticed it as intensely if I hadn’t downloaded Instagram. Maddie had formed a new support system with another future teacher friend, and as I looked at pictures of them traveling together and exploring their city I began to think about how alone I was. She had created a community around her and was “doing life” with Rylie the same way I had a semester earlier. They were going to church, eating meals, going over to each other’s’ houses, and even completing escape rooms together.
I am certainly glad that Maddie has someone she can turn to, but the visibility of it on social media has made me recognize that I don’t have that. I could certainly reach out to anyone if I was having a rough day, and I have, but I don’t have a daily routine with anyone here. I may be surrounded by people on the bus, in the city, during class, or even at my homestay, but I don’t have someone with me through all these situations to experience everyday life with.
Sometimes social media can tear at your heart, but other times it can be used to lift you up. When I was feeling especially down about not having my support group with me, Maddie uploaded a sentimental post:
“Friendship, what a blessing… I’ve heard it’s even better when you’re all on the same continent. Missing y’all!!”
Although her words weren’t enough to cure my loneliness, they soothed my fears of being forgotten. We can stay connected through texting, and I am grateful for the reassurance that we are both excited to see each other again. I was worried the friendships she had in New Zealand would be enough for her when she returned to school, and I would be left without a friend who had such a big role in my life the year before. This solitary time abroad has helped me learn to be more independent but has also shown me how important it is for me to experience life with close friends.