It isn’t until one steps into another world that the differences are starkly seen and it isn’t until one lives in another world that the differences become life, and life-changing.
England. I’ve learned about the country, it’s political and educational systems, the stereotypes, the overall attitudes of the English… but those are facts and facts are to be memorized. England is to be experienced, and experiencing England is what taught me the most. To live in England is to sit at a pub with friends instead of your laptop. To live in England is to walk to class instead of driving. To live in England is to spend time at University Park instead of playing video games. To live in England is to not eat corn syrup. To live in England is to have tea-breaks during class. To live in England is to walk to the local grocery store instead of a superstore, buy something that expires within the week and return the next instead of buying in bulk. That is the England I experienced and the England I fell in love with.
Anyone who visits another country will have different experiences than the next person. I can say I’ve learned much about England, but I may not have experienced it the same way others will. My experience is my own and it has taught me things that no one can every fully understand, nor could I ever fully explain… things about myself, my faith, my friends and the world… things that have shaped me and changed me and I can honestly say that I will never be the same after studying abroad in Oxford.
I stopped blogging about halfway through the semester, partly out of laziness, partly out of the desire to be with the people in my house or go to the park or play soccer instead of spending time on the computer. Journaling is important. Writing is important. But experiencing life is the most important thing of all.
For our final assignment in our International Studies class, we were asked to write a paper on our experiences. I could’ve written a novel, but for lack of time, space and for the sake of those who read this, I’ll summarize it, perhaps using a few of the topics our professor asked us to cover as an rough outline.
Upon the start of this trip, I expected to be changed and influenced most by the places I visited and the sites I saw. About halfway through the semester, I realized it was not these things that had been affecting me most, but the people I was constantly surrounded by. Living in a house with twenty-plus people can be a challenge. It can be chaos. It can be smelly. It can be dirty. It can be frustrating and annoying.
It can also be one of the best experiences of your life.
I can’t even begin to say how the relationships I strengthened and formed on this trip changed me in so many ways. Never have such deep bonds with people formed so quickly. Living in a dorm is one thing. There is a campus to escape to, another hall to visit, another room to go to. A house is an entirely different arena… forced to be with each other nearly every hour of every day, share one shower between 8 girls, keep a kitchen clean (or not), keep our rooms clean and try our best not to (or to) disturb the studiers and somehow manage to be friends by the end of each day. It is through the ups and downs that came with this living situation that I formed some of the deepest, most substantial relationships I’ve ever had.
Relationships are not easy. As much as we would like to have friendships that just work, that is “very simply” not the case. Relationships take work and I have seen that played out more this semester than ever. I have seen that to truly form unbreakable bonds with people, I must be ready and willing to make sacrifices to keep a friendship in tact. Living in a community is about caring for those in the community, being willing to help in any way and keeping each other accountable even when it hurts.
Living in community is about living in love.
Through this community, I learned much about who I am as a person, a woman of God, an individual. It has been a long time since I’ve seen such a drastic change in who I am as a person. In many ways, I feel I am more me than I ever have been. The people I’ve developed friendships with and the things I’ve seen and experienced have given me a self-confidence that I’d long been lacking. I’ve been given a new perspective on life and faith and a clearer view of what I value and am searching for in life. I feel stronger, emotionally and spiritually, than ever.
So much of this is still in the processing stages. I am only just beginning to unwrap everything that happened this semester and I think I am a long ways away from understanding it all. God did so much work on my heart.
What I have found, spiritually, is that my view on Christ was so limited. I limited His power and put Him in a box, taking His responsibility of changing people’s hearts upon myself. I grew up bombarded by Westernized, fundamentalist ideas so, needless to say, I came into college extremely close-minded. I can’t even begin to say how much change happened in that area of my life this semester. Part of me doesn’t even want to go into it because there is no way I can truly convey what my heart is feeling.
I know these things…
- I know that my mind has been opened to knew ways of thinking.
- I know that before this semester I sorely (and still do, in many ways) underestimated just how big God is.
- I know that my Western culture infected my faith like a virus and that I must separate the two in my mind to truly love and accept others as they are.
- I know that the Lord does work in miraculous ways, with or without my “help” and that He will reunite His bride.
- I know that the Body of Christ is not a Caucasian, American male, but a beautifully diverse being made of all people of all cultures and colors and ways of believing.
- I know that I am a Christ-follower and that living in love is the greatest call on my life.
As I look back on this semester and try to process everything that happened, as I listen to Towers by Bon Iver and cry and as I try to get used to American accents and American attitudes once again, I can’t help but ask myself if it all really happened, because at this point, it all feels like a dream.
It really does feel like only yesterday, I was taking a picture of the big plane I would board and sending it to my baby sister. It seems only yesterday that I was looking over the mountains in Cinque Terre, Italy eating an orange and enjoying the sunshine. It seems only yesterday that I sat in a barrack at Auschwitz, horrified by the monstrosities that occurred there. It seems only yesterday that our group was gathered in the hostel in Carrcassone , having a Spades tournament.
I’ve just had the experience of a lifetime, one that no one but those who took part in it alongside me will ever understand. There are jokes and phrases that have become a part of my daily conversation, emotions and feelings, memories, thoughts, stories and experiences that I have had and am having that no one but my Oxfordians will get.
Palmer’s green beans. Perfect. Hey bud? Scoutmaster Garrison. Canterbury Tales. Never gonna happen.
These are things I will never be able to quite convey to those who did not experience Oxford with me.
In the same way, I cannot possibly convey my emotions at this moment as I sit at home, in America, writing this blog post. There is so much sadness in my heart because I am away from my closest friends. There is so much joy as I reminisce on the best of memories. There are so many other feelings that I cannot even put into words and so I’m sorry, but I cannot do my experience justice for those who ask.
I know people will want to know. I have already been asked, “how was it?” And I am left speechless. I cannot answer, especially not in a short conversation. How does one go about explaining four months of one’s life where so much happened? Where life was so different? How does one describe the feeling that life before Oxford almost feels non-existent, or like a different reality, because Oxford had become reality? It is impossible.
Coming home was bitter. I am still sad and may be for a while. There will be times where I miss Oxford a whole awful lot, where I want to drink tea and cry, where I look through pictures and reminisce, where I call up a friend and talk about our semester abroad, where I desperately want the whole group to be back together because honestly, right now that is what I want more than anything.
Coming home was bitter, but it was also sweet. I am with my family that I love. Most of those who I studied abroad with, I will see again. I have pictures and memories to share and I still have my Oxford friends to reminisce with, joke with, play Spades with, look through pictures with. For the rest of my life, I know there will be moments where I remember something from the semester and laugh, or cry or smile as I do whatever I am doing at that stage in my life. The semester is over but there is so much ahead of me that I cannot wait for.
Heck, I’m only twenty. If I’ve done this much by this age, who knows what else is in store, where else I will go, what else I will experience and what other friendships are to come in the future? A huge milestone in my life was just crossed and it has left me a different person.
Now, on to the next adventure, whatever it may be.
Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen. ~Benjamin Disraeli
All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another. ~Anatole France