University of St. Andrews

Embracing Your Fears

Julia Zeh CC'18

"Only being there for a semester, I was prepared to do things I would have been too afraid of doing at Columbia."

The idea of studying abroad terrified me. I kept second guessing my decision to leave Columbia all the way up until I boarded my plane at JFK. When I decided to apply to the University of St Andrews in Scotland, I had never left the country or flown on a plane by myself – I had rarely even been on planes before. I didn’t have a passport until I began applying to St Andrews. As a science major entrenched in the Core, I had never gone a semester without taking a humanities class. I had never stayed in an Airbnb or booked a rental car with friends. In fact, I had never been on a vacation with friends for longer than a few days.

I did all of these things for the first time while I was abroad, and for the most part my fears were justified, though the rewards were well worth the risks I took. Things did go wrong, and I was scared up until my last international flight as I returned to the US – did I have my passport? All my luggage? Was my water bottle empty before going through security? But fear can be a sign that you are doing something right. By doing the thing you are scared of, you are growing and exploring and finding yourself.

I’m not really sure how to describe the results of embracing these fears without it sounding too cliché. In the end, the experience of study abroad ends up being a combination of all the clichés you’ve probably heard about it: I’m a different person than I was when I left for Scotland, I have a new global awareness and perspective, I have lots to add to my resume. In the context of study abroad, high risk leads to high reward. If you’re afraid of studying abroad, it probably means that you should do it, and grow all the more because of it.

The other beautiful thing about studying abroad is that once you make the decision to do it and actually arrive at your abroad location, everything becomes relatively low risk. Only being there for a semester, I was prepared to do things I would have been too afraid of doing at Columbia. I spoke with everyone around me, made lots of friends, went to every school event I could, went on weekend trips, attended every ball I could afford, found a research internship for the semester, and reached out to a number of researchers for career advice. I gave myself the time and allowance for mistakes that I often forget to give myself here at Columbia, and that made all the difference in a productive semester abroad personally and academically.