Far from home, close at heart

On the night of Monday, April 15, after sounding a cheerful greeting to my host mother as I breezed through our front door, I dashed up to my room, shut the door tight, put my heads in my hands and wept.

After a day of studying peacefully outside, the tropical Chilean heat was shattered by a single news update on my iPhone. The following hours were spent with my eyes glued to whatever electronics were nearest, watching with horror as one after one gruesome update rolled in like clockwork “Explosions at Boston Marathon injure dozens,” or something similar began the conservative start, and then a few hours later the headlines seemed to grow more serious: “Several feared dead in Boston Marathon Explosions,” “Injured Number Over 100,” “Witnesses describe ‘Scene Of Carnage” were some of the phrases tossed around the web. My wide eyes could not tear themselves away from the horrific photos of an ashen-faced young man clasping what remained of his legs as Carlos Arrendondo, a bystander recognizable to many by his cowboy hat, sped him away to safety. I lingered on the shot of the elderly runner from my home state of Washington toppling to the group as police officers scrambled to draw their firearms in a haze of smoke.

But oddly enough, the photo that had me sitting on the edge of my bed with tears streaming down my face was the photo of a limp American flag hanging over a deserted metal barrier, feebly waving the red white and blue now dully shrouded in a swirl of smoke, blood and human chaos. In a searing case of déjà vu, I realized this wasn’t the first time I was forced to helplessly watch as thousands of miles away from home, a national catastrophe unfolded over my media devices. Last fall, a typical night at a bar in Spain was overturned when a friend connected her phone to the Wi-Fi and suddenly the story of 20 children ruthlessly murdered by a gun-wielding teen in Newton, Mass. splashed across our lives and sent me shoving my beer aside as I scrambled for answers on my iPhone.

I’ve been overseas for a collective six months since the fall, with four months to go in my current location of Santiago, Chile. I’ve sat through days of university orientation material dedicated to the topic of “culture shock.” I spent an afternoon indoors on a perfect summer day, grumpily learning about my student traveler insurance, who to call in a disaster such as an earthquake, where to go if I was gravely injured, how to stay out of student protests, etc. But no one ever told me what it feels like, what to do or how to compose myself when a national crisis hits my home several time zones away. And when I reflect on the current state of this country, of the mass shootings in Aurora, Colo. and Newton, Mass., the gunman in Southern California, or the Boston bombing now just over a week ago, I think this is an experience that deserves to be included in our conversations about study abroad.

No one tells you how your heart seizes up when you see the first photo of a person with a leg torn away. Or the photos of the police officers holding each other up, wiping away tears after emerging from a desecrated grade-school classroom where small children lie stiller than the flag shrouding what should have been an ordinary fall day in New England. How you go through the motions of a day and can still hear the frightened screaming of the marathon bystanders a world away echoing in your head. Or how you dread the half-hour commute from school to home because in that small slice of time, you might miss the Facebook post from a friend who had attended the Boston Marathon saying that she was safe and far away from the madness. In fact, you want that Wi-Fi so badly that you half-jog the long blocks home, striding out the last few feet, arriving home with a coating of sweat and fear on your face quickly masked with a few words of high-pitched Spanish and a dash upstairs to the finish line – your laptop.

Perhaps all of this is an emotional roller coaster that cannot be prevented, or best chalked up to the price that one pays for becoming a temporary “expat.” After all, I was the one who chose to leave my country – why should I complain when I can’t have instant contact with my friends and family back home? But my study-abroad lesson these past two semesters has been clear: when crisis strikes, the distance between Williamstown and Santiago, Chile seems to triple in an instant. During these moments of crisis and confusion, my mind instinctively has turned towards the strong, supportive community response to crisis that we continue to cultivate at Williams, and that I have naively grown to expect out of every situation.

I wouldn’t trade a moment of my study abroad experience; for those sophomores wavering on the decision amid all the junior year possibilities, I recommend it with all my heart. But after experiencing Newton and now Boston amid a sympathetic but understandably disengaged environment, a part of me yearned to wake up to the sun creeping over the purple hued hills of the Berkshires, our flag drawn at half-mast over Chapin Lawn.

Emily Dugdale ’14 is a political science major from Seattle, Wash. She is studying abroad in Chile.