A few months before this summer—when I jet off to study abroad in and explore London for six weeks—I met with the only other AIFS alum who was still a current student at my school. After picking her brain apart and asking dozens of questions, I wrote down every piece of advice she gave me. These tips ranged from packing guidance to café recommendations, and I took every answer in earnest… except for one thing. The student mentioned that she was very independent and went off on her own a lot while abroad. While she emphasized that I had the option to do plenty of AIFS-sponsored events or explore London with a group of friends, she also told me that I definitely needed to go out on my own a few times.
After hearing her say this, I sort of smiled and nodded, pretending that I was already planning on walking the streets of London all by myself. I acted like I was just as independent and confident as she.
In reality, the opposite was true. I was most certainly planning on always being with at least one other person when I went out. I told myself and my family that potentially, towards the end of the six weeks, I would be okay going to places nearby alone. If I am being honest, though, I did not actually believe that.
Some of you may be in the same boat as I was in; others may be very nonchalant about exploring a foreign city on your own. To understand my hesitancy, there are a few things you should know about me.
- This was my first time leaving the country, and with the exception of visiting family or competing in speech tournaments, I do not even travel much in the United States outside of Kentucky. I did not have the tourist or traveler knowledge to fortify my experience while abroad.
- I can be a little timid and shy. After being warned of the big-city life, (i.e. pickpockets, pushy market owners, etc.) I did not think I would be able to stand up for myself if the situation arose.
- Most importantly, I have absolutely no sense of direction. Whether the topic is maps, public transportation, or general spatial awareness, it is pretty much a given that I will be confused. You may think I am exaggerating. I am not. I still cannot confidently navigate my hometown that I have lived in for 20 years.
Given my track record, it seemed pretty obvious that to explore London independently was not an option for me. I would still visit historical locations or try out tasty cafés, but it would be in the company of other people whom I could use as a guide for both social and spatial directions.
For the first two weeks, that is exactly what I did. Whether I was walking to class, attending a field trip, or exploring the city, I always had at least one other friend who was also going to the same place. With the exception of a very short walk to class one day and a brief stroll around the block from where I stayed, I had not done anything by myself.
However, eventually the time came where I could rely on other people no longer. When exploring your city, you will soon realize that not everyone wants to visit the same places as you, and even if they do, schedules do not align perfectly. The fact that I had been able to go two weeks without this happening was a stroke of good luck, but that luck did run out. When I could not find anyone to go see the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace with me, I had to make a decision: either I could wait around and hope to eventually find someone else to go with—and in turn, risk never going at all—or, I could get it over with and go by myself.
After extensively planning my route through the app City Mapper and taking detailed notes about what to do, I felt ready to ride the tube by myself for the first time. I made sure my phone battery was full and packed my portable charger. I reviewed which tube to catch and which station to exit until I could say it in my sleep. I wrote out when I had to leave to get to Changing of the Guards and later lunch back at my dorm in time. I was going to do it. I was going to be independent.
I did do it. I was independent. This feat that I had been stressing over for so long was actually a breeze. By planning ahead of time and staying aware of my surroundings, I was able to navigate everything perfectly without getting lost. When I wanted a picture of me in front of the palace and the rose garden, I sucked up my shyness and asked a fellow tourist standing nearby. While I would have enjoyed doing this with friends, I realized something I never would have recognized had I continued to blindly follow everyone around me:
I may be a shy, directionally-challenged, occasionally confused twenty-year-old in a foreign city, but I am also a friendly, competent, and wise study abroad student who can learn to step outside of her comfort zone.
Since then, I have traveled to all sorts of places around London. Later that week, I went to the Imperial War Museum by myself. In the next week, I took peaceful strolls in countless parks and gardens, appreciating the ability to do everything at my own pace. One Saturday, I even took a train out of London to East Molesey in Surrey by myself because I really wanted to see Hampton Court Palace. While in many of these adventures, I got turned around or had to consult Google Maps for directions, I was never in a position in which I did not feel safe or content.
If you are considering studying abroad or preparing to study abroad, it may be tempting to follow the lead of someone else. While there is nothing wrong with doing this at the beginning, once you get to know your city, going off by yourself is a remarkable experience that will increase your confidence and maturity. Of course, not every city will be the same as London. You may have additional obstacles, such as a language barrier or transportation issues. However, you will never know how much you can accomplish until you give it a try. If you are still feeling anxious, keep this in mind: I consistently get lost trying to find the correct exit when leaving one of the larger bookstores in my hometown. If I can navigate a foreign city by myself, so can you.