Monica Weindling is a Psychology student at Colorado College and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand in 2015.
Studying abroad is about going somewhere new, expanding your world views, and making lasting memories and lasting friendships… or at least that’s the expectation everyone walks in with. Somewhere new? Check: New Zealand. Expanding world view? Check: signed up for a Māori Society class and living with a Kiwi. Lasting memories? Just the travel time to get to New Zealand from Boston was enough to make a lasting impression, not to mention the gorgeous scenery everywhere I looked. Lasting friendships? Hopefully.
You don’t have to become best friends with the first people you meet.
I will be the first to admit that I do not make friends quickly, and this weighed heavily on me for much of my time abroad. Just as you have to find your niche of people at college, you have to find your group of friends when you study abroad. While everyone in the IFSA-Butler program was perfectly nice and friendly, many of them simply bonded with each other faster than I was willing to.
By the time we reached Dunedin after orientation in Auckland I was feeling a bit stranded. But I had faith—there were still my flat mates! I had an all-female flat with a Kiwi host, three Americans including myself, and a Singaporean. For a while, it seemed like that would be my group. We stayed in and did puzzles instead of going out, had movie nights, weekly potluck dinners with the flat below us—I was fitting in, starting to build some genuine friendships. These would be the people I would stay in touch with in the coming years, who I would go back to New Zealand with just to stay in and do puzzles. At least, that was what I hoped.
Finding the right friends is all trial and error.
Studying abroad in New Zealand practically requires you to spend your free time in the outdoors, and by the time mid-semester break rolled around I was starting to feel guilty for staying in so much. Were these really the right people for me? Didn’t I just see some posts on Facebook last week about some people from my program kayaking Milford Sound? Did I choose the wrong friends? Just as the anxiety was beginning to build up, one of my American flat mates invited me to come along with her and a couple other ladies on a day hike and multi-day backpacking trip for the week. I had spent some time with the other two, and relished the opportunity to get out, make some memories, and potentially make the kind of lasting friends I was so desperate to make.
It looked like a solid crew: my outdoorsy Minnesotan flat mate who was perpetually upbeat, another American who was also a Psychology major like myself, and a highly sarcastic Kiwi who was in search of fellow adventurers. A week’s worth of hostels were booked, hike routes decided, contingency plans made in case of bad weather, and a cheap five-person rental car secured. And then our other American flat mate’s plans to go to Australia fell through and she was left scrambling. Maybe she could go home with our Kiwi host? Only if she couldn’t find anything else to do. Maybe she could come along with us? She asked me directly, personally. With my seemingly already perfect group in mind I told her we would have to come to a group decision about it. The consensus was a quick yes so long as she could handle herself in the outdoors and backcountry, and she would need to book her hostels herself.
Personally I had my hesitations: she was a lot shorter than I was and I walked fast—would she be able to keep up on the hikes? What was her experience with the backcountry? Half our group at the time had decent experience, and she might now bring that ratio down, which was not comforting for me as more of a beginner in the backcountry. She was a bit more about the party and drinking life than I was—would she be able to handle the fact that we were aiming to have a pretty tame week in that sense? I surprised myself by bringing these concerns up to her, but she quickly dismissed them. And I quickly accepted. When you study abroad you’re supposed to make friends, not tell people they don’t fit with your group. Right?
Well, I’m here to tell you maybe some people just aren’t a good fit.
In short, all my concerns about our late addition were eventually grounded in events that transpired over the week. When we weren’t in the backcountry she was always trying to get us to explore the night life of whatever town or small city we were in. When we were on the trail, she walked slow enough for us to lose sight of her often, which partially contributed to her losing the trail a couple times and needing someone to backtrack and find her. I was frustrated. Frustrated with her, frustrated with myself for letting her come along, and that frustration has colored all my memories of that week. I saw some of the most beautiful landscapes in my life that weekend, had an otherwise fantastic first experience with multi-day backpacking, but whenever I think of the trip, or look at the pictures, all my memories eventually return to how I felt it would have been better with one less person.
It’s hard to say no to someone in the moment. When you’re studying abroad, it seems like everyone has the potential to be a lasting friend, and it’s hard to take a step back and critically evaluate whether you are actually a good fit. So yes, go out, study abroad, learn about the world, make memories, and make friends. But make sure that the people you spend your time with are the right people for you. I did eventually make some pretty solid friends and had some awesome experiences with them, but only after I got over trying so hard to be friends with everyone.