TLDR: Being stuck in lockdowns isn’t the best way to start university, but here’s what I have learnt! Studying overseas allowed me to have an open mind and embrace challenges as they came.
“Congratulations! The world is your oyster.”
Like many undergraduates studying abroad, studying overseas was a significant milestone for me. I had many aspirations for personal growth, academic success and ultimately, a successful career.
Though I had many worries about what the future may bring, I knew that it was something I have longed for. I couldn’t contain my excitement as the days approached – the start of my journey in England!
Groups of students were at the airport with their friends and family, but I was alone pushing the airport trolley. It was a familiar yet strange feeling to be at the airport. This time was unlike all previous trips: I felt uneasy and lonely.
This was just the beginning of my journey. It was later filled with moments of unexpectedness. An identity I thought was solid was shown to be transparent.
Here’s what I have learnt during my year abroad:
1. Being at peace with my emotions
Lugging heavy luggage up and downhill, then up a few flights of stairs marked my arrival at college. A physical workout I never expected at a world-class institution.
Then, came my greatest shock: 2 boxes of food that were for half a month of quarantine. Hot meals that I expected to be delivered to my room were merely my wishful thinking.
Instant food and more junk food greeted me as I rummaged through the boxes, only to find out that I was given the same food ration daily.
The reality was vastly different from what I had expected. I was disappointed because I had high expectations of university life. One disappointment after another coupled with homesickness just made things worse.
Being in an unpleasant situation, I learned to slowly acknowledge and accept my emotions. Recognising that emotions were fleeting and impermanent calmed me down. Labelling my emotions made their fleeting nature more obvious.
I was more mindful when unpleasant emotions arose and l grew to be more gentle towards myself. Unhappy times would eventually pass, and so would happy ones.
I started to live in the present and realised I had limited control over the future. We, humans, desire pleasant feelings and want to cling to them, while quickly escaping from unpleasant ones.
Suffering is experienced when things do not go according to our wishes. We feel uneasy and become reactive towards the unfamiliar.
My comfort food was a warm bowl of noodles and not potato chips in the cold weather. I learned to be grateful for the food which provided me with energy instead of viewing it as an unpleasant meal.
“All conditioned phenomena are impermanent; When one sees this with Insight-wisdom, one becomes weary of dukkha (dissatisfaction). This is the path to purity.” Dhammapada Verse 277
2. Learning to slow down
In Singapore, I was used to the fast-paced life where everything has to be done quickly and efficiently. We are always in a rush to complete yet another task.
In England, I began immersing myself in my surroundings and noticed the little things. I took time to enjoy the brilliant colours of the autumn foliage, sheep grazing the field, birds chirping at dawn and dusk and the paw prints of bunnies when winter arrived.
I made so many discoveries when I slowed down to observe.
The little things which I once paid no attention to were the ones I looked forward to each day.
By relaxing my pace of life, I started to appreciate the people, culture and environment. I was slower in jumping to conclusions and was more willing to understand and learn. I was responding and not reacting to different situations
I felt happier and more relaxed by focusing on what I had, rather than worrying about the future.
3. Staying calm in the face of challenges
Stuck in the middle of a pandemic, I had to do my laundry, cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping, etc., amidst many assignments and exams. These were previously handled by my parents in Singapore.
Moreover, schoolwork greatly increased in depth and breadth compared to polytechnic. There were much more readings, preparations for seminars, and numerous modules to handle.
Besides, I was studying a subject that was foreign and needed more time to understand the content. The accumulation of the tasks and workload consumed me.
I was experiencing high stress, yet I need to increase my productivity to complete my tasks. Thankfully, I managed to set aside time to find some solutions to get me through these difficult moments. Having exposure to the Dhamma through groups like BFY and NPBS gave me the tools to get through these moments.
Before a study session, I would calm down by doing a short meditation. This was beneficial in decluttering thoughts and giving clarity to focus on tasks.
Day-tight compartments prioritise focusing on the task we have at hand, without being trapped in the past or future.
I would plan out my agenda for the day and break it down into small manageable tasks. Having a plan assures me that I would be able to complete my agendas on time.
During each study session, I would focus on my planned tasks. However, if important stray thoughts arose, I would jot them down and attend to them later.
4. Being appreciative
Being away from my family and friends made me realise their importance and how much I have taken them for granted.
All the little things that I have taken for granted all these years, such as a bowl of home-cooked food or even a short face to face meet-up with my friends and family were the ones I yearned for.
These made me more appreciative of the unconditional care and support that I once took as given. Now that I am back at home, the experience abroad reminds me to spend more quality time with my family and do more for them.
Even though I am currently back in Singapore, studying abroad was one of the most memorable times – wonderful memories and the ones that made me grow.
It made me realise the impermanent nature of things. I was once full of hope for where my educational journey in England would bring me, but ultimately things change, and so do my purposes. This is truly anicca.
- When an unpleasant situation arises, observe & label the emotions you are feeling and note your reaction to them. What can we do differently the next time it arises?
- The next time you’re on your daily commute, take time to observe your surroundings and the greenery that surrounds you.
- Identify methods that calm yourself down in the face of adversities (meditation/ taking walks/ day-tight compartments)