In a school of 10,000 undergraduates, many students find that they have solidified the majority of their friends by the end of their freshman or sophomore years. But for students studying abroad, the experience often comes with the extra challenge of being forced to find new friends more than halfway through their college experience.
College junior Rebecca Brown, who is studying at Kings College London this semester, made the trip “without really knowing” anyone on her program. While she said that she had taken classes with a few people or recognized some names or faces from other campus activities, she would not have considered herself friends with anyone on her program.
“During orientation week, I was just trying to meet as many people as possible, but traveling in huge groups of people was leaving me feeling pretty empty,” Brown said. “Very much a flashback to freshman NSO.”
The emptiness vanished when one night Brown was separated from the rest of the group and found herself with College junior Mikaela Gilbert-Lurie and two other students on the program.
At the time, Gilbert-Lurie was another one of those vaguely familiar faces to Brown. Now the two banter through our conversation as if they’ve known each other for years. They even have a list of random ways they had crossed paths at Penn before going to London. Among them are participating in PennQuest as freshmen, sitting next to each other at a fraternity’s date night and attending Rosh Hashana services together. Brown even admitted that she followed Gilbert-Lurie’s blog over the summer before they met.
“Our paths had crossed so many times it was like the opposite of love at first sight. It was like love at 300th sight,” Gilbert-Lurie joked.
In terms of actually making friends while abroad, though, Brown found the experience a bit different from what she had seen at Penn. “The biggest difference from freshman year, though, is that the whole experience feels very temporary. I feel like when I finally get completely settled in, it’ll be time to leave for the semester,” she said.
For Brown, that makes her friendship with Gilbert-Lurie even more authentic. “What has been so great about our friendship is that there’s nothing temporary about it — we get to see each other for the rest of college, and that rocks,” she said.
Gilbert-Lurie echoed Brown’s sentiments. “The stress of being abroad, like not knowing which way to look when you cross the street or being lost literally all the time, really mimics that vibe of freshman year where you’re sort of just thrown into it and left to flail until you figure it out,” she said.
Gilbert-Lurie and Brown are not alone. College juniors Anna Garson, an associate copy editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian, and Sofia Demopolos met for the first time this semester in Paris. By the end of the semester, they will have traveled to four different cities around Europe together.
When asked how their friendship differs from friendships they’ve experienced at Penn, Demopolos said, “Well, I would probably not have planned four weekend trips with someone I met a month ago if we were at home. But that’s definitely part of going abroad.”
Demopolos and Garson also described an uncomfortable incident when they encountered a man following them on a train in Venice and how experiencing that together became a strengthening force in their friendship.
“I don’t even know what the equivalent of that would be with someone at Penn simply because we wouldn’t be in a totally different environment and we would know how to call the police,” Demopolos said. “And it’s definitely a way this friendship has differed from others because that was super awful and I don’t think I’ve had an experience like that with a friend before.”
Though Garson and Demopolos and Brown and Gilbert-Lurie have experienced close friendships in the context of being abroad, they have all only experienced those friendships away from Penn. While none of them expressed real concerns about staying in touch once the semester is over, they did admit that it would be different.
College seniors Emily Vidal, Vince Cooper and Rolanda Evelyn have figured out how to make their abroad friendship last after they returned from Seville, Spain last fall.
Like the other groups of friends, none of them had crossed paths before meeting in Spain. “I remember meeting both Vince and Rolanda in the lobby of the hotel we stayed in for the first week. We were all just chatting and getting to know each other, and we just clicked right away!” Vidal said.
Evelyn said that traveling together while abroad brought out different aspects of their friendship — something she was reminded of when the group traveled to the University of Michigan over fall break to reunite with some other students who participated in their study abroad program.
“I realized as study abroad friends we had frequented airports and dealt with logistics and cabs so much. Like so many of our experiences together were exploring new cities and going to new places,” Evelyn said. “And it’s just different — you learn different things about these people than, say, what you would learn about them from being in a class together or living on their hall."
Vidal agreed, saying that being in such a different environment changed the way she bonded with people. “You’re dealing with culture shock, a language barrier, being excited about studying abroad, but at the same time feeling homesick and being really frustrated sometimes with the environment you’re in,” she said.
In terms of keeping their friendship alive after their abroad semester ended, Evelyn said she thinks they have done a good job. “There was a large group of us from Penn so obviously we couldn’t all always see each other, but I would say Emily, Vince and I have stayed pretty close,” she said. “We actually have a standing date tomorrow.”
For Vidal, the friendships she made while abroad were so strong that they put some of her friendships that existed at Penn into a different perspective. “I wouldn’t say that my study abroad friends became my only social priority when I came back, and I wouldn’t say that my pre-abroad relationships became necessarily weaker. More that I kind of looked at my relationships from a different perspective after coming back and decided to keep some people in my life more than others,” she said.
“It really made me think about the kinds of people I wanted as friends when I came back because I went through so much with the people I was abroad with and they were all just so supportive the entire time,” she added. “We were really like a family.”
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