Popping the purple bubble

When I stepped back onto campus after nearly nine months away, I almost felt like a stranger. People I had grown accustomed to seeing every day were suddenly gone. New faces were everywhere. Those vaguely familiar would squint at me upon first glance, asking me the inevitable question that all returning students have come to expect. “You were abroad last semester, right?” I would say that yes, I was, and they would ask me where I had been. With a pause and a sigh, I would tell them and receive that inescapable look of shock.

The response that was sure to follow irked me more than fingernails on a blackboard. “Washington D.C.? Well, that doesn’t really count, does it?” Yes, I spent last semester in Washington, D.C. Yes, I realize that Washington is not in Europe. I do understand that I didn’t have to learn a new language in order to study there. So why should my experience suddenly “not count?” Why are my fellow students more surprised to hear “Washington D.C.,” than “Madrid,” “Edinburgh,” or “Siberia”?

A year ago, I knew that I would spend my whole junior year on campus. After a disappointment that can only be described with two letters, “J” and “A”, I made myself think that I would be perfectly content being at Williams for another two semesters. A conversation in the fall of my junior year with friends changed all that. They asked me why I was so adamant about staying on campus. Even though I said that I didn’t know, I knew why. I was scared and maybe a little lazy. I loved Williams and I knew it. So why should I pack up and go somewhere that I didn’t already know I loved? My friends called me on this, imploring me to at least look at some programs. I relented and retreated to my room. If I was going to study away, it would be on my terms, I thought. I wanted to remain in the country and I wanted to study journalism. That or nothing. After a bit of research, I found a program through Boston University that sent students to Washington to serve as correspondents for New England newspapers and to take classes. Before I knew it, I had prodded the Deans to approve the program, and I was accepted. Upon leaving the office for the last time before December break, one of the Deans came up to me and said: “You’re being very adventurous, you know.” I wasn’t sure what she meant until now.

I arrived in Washington when most Williams students were settling in to Winter Study. I was handed a Congressional Press Pass, given an internship, and let loose. The other students were twelve practically professional journalists, with newspaper editorships and years of journalism classes under their belts. I had nothing. I just wanted to write.

I had never lived in a city before. I learned quickly. There were countless moments when I desperately wanted to go back to Williams. The terror alert rainbow moved from yellow to orange while I was in Washington. We were told to buy duct tape.We were told to remain calm. It was during this time that I became painfully aware that there was a reason I was in Washington. All my life, scores of things frightened me. So when it became inevitable that my life would soon be in danger, I pushed my fears aside and kept going. I couldn’t afford to be afraid anymore. Even though I knew that my life would have been easier, calmer and maybe a little safer had I remained at Williams, I don’t regret my time away for a minute. I learned more than I ever dreamed I could. I experienced things I never thought that I would. I became a political junkie. I learned how to write and am clearer about my future career. And I worked harder than I’ve ever worked in my life.

But my experience is still trivialized by others. Sometimes you have to step outside your comfort zone. That often requires doing something that the standard “Williams experience” would not dictate. Just because it’s considered normal doesn’t mean that it’s right for you. Williams is an amazing place and has taught me so much, but still I felt that I hadn’t learned enough. As ironic as it may sound, you might have to leave this campus to complete the legendary “Williams experience.”

I never imagined I’d be saying this, but I encourage everyone to consider studying away. And if you decide to do so, do a little research; don’t settle for what’s on the Deans’ approved programs list just because it’s easy and there. Take a risk. It just might change your life. You have to follow your passion, wherever it takes you. Even if it isn’t Europe.