Column | Feb. 13

Let yourself go (abroad)

In imagining what can only be the dramatic origins of a certain Princeton mantra, I like to think that one day a Princetonian on the cusp of graduation looked up at Blair Arch, its stones basked in a special sort of afternoon sun, and in a fit of nostalgia placed his hand on the shoulder of a passing freshman and warned, “You only get eight semesters here.” The freshman then thought of the very short eight semesters ahead of him and was struck with unease. He repeated the words, now with the cadence of a proverb, to those around him: “You only get eight semesters here.” And the phrase was picked up and passed on and was swept up into the collective consciousness of the Princeton student so that however many years later as I, a restless sophomore, filled out my application to study abroad the following fall it made me wonder if I was making a terrible mistake.

Anyone who disproved of my going, or who did not want to go themselves, said those string of words as if no other advice was necessary. Why would I want to give up one of my precious eight semesters? Until the moment I landed at Heathrow Airport in London, I was wondering the same thing. I was afraid that I would miss some quintessential Princeton moment. I absolutely needed to live out all eight semesters on this campus, within these gates, to really get the “college experience” that adults always seem to reference, as if we’ve all had the same one. I feared missing my friends, the nights out, the inside jokes that I wouldn’t be a part of when I returned. I worried about the academic and career opportunities — classes rarely offered or information sessions for future internships — that would pass by while I was gone.

And I did, in fact, miss some things while I was abroad. I missed the break up of three couples and the start of one other. I was not here for Princetoween or formals or the bonfire. Four good friends threw various birthday pregames I could not attend and I never networked at the Morgan Stanley information session. I was not here at the moment when others got over the novelty of eating in a club and I will have to wait until next fall to take THR 205: Introductory Playwriting. So, yes, I missed things. But the important things — my friends, my extracurriculars, my professors, even my unsolved problems — were all waiting, untouched and unchanged, when I came back. In the end, I missed a semester that was not all that different from the others.

After a semester abroad, the mantra I’m professing is, “You have seven semesters at Princeton. And only one abroad. Why would you not go?”  Never in your life will you have the opportunity, flexibility and the financial assistance to spend three or four or five months in a different country and actually be expected, even encouraged, to expend energy enjoying yourself. I explored London and cities throughout Europe  and found hidden — and not so hidden — places to love in each of them. I met incredible people to get lost with, to laugh with and even to cry with once or twice. I had one of those cliché coming of age moments when some sound perspective — on what matters and what makes me happy — replaced, in retrospect, a rather naïve one. I love that it happened and hate that I have no less corny way to say it — I had the time of my not-so-long life. I would readily give up another semester to do it all again.

Do not let anyone — even yourself — talk you out of going abroad if that is what you want to do. This is your chance and it pains me to hear students say, “I want to go abroad but … ” There are very few endings to that sentence that should be enough for you to stay. I promise Princeton will be here, FitzRandolph gates still thrown open, when you return. And in a way it will all seem more wonderful — the campus more beautiful than you remembered, the relative familiarity of the faces more comforting, the Street not so mundane, the free laundry more luxurious.

Nevertheless, I am not so ignorant as to suggest that every single person should or must go abroad. There are those that simply have no desire and to them I say do enjoy each and every moment of your time here — Princeton can be its own sort of adventure if you take risks and seize opportunities within its bounds. But if for even a moment you considered going abroad, do not let any excuse dissuade you. In the scheme of things, missing a semester was a blink, a snap, a twitch — I was there and then suddenly I was back. That is the opportunity I encourage you to grasp, because it is fleeting and brilliant and there is only one, not eight, of these chances before you.

Chelsea Jones is an English major from Ridgefield, Conn. She can be reached at chelseaj@princeton.edu.

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