In 2011 I was finishing high school and, in addition to my book knowledge, there was only one other thing I knew for certain: I was going to Germany to study Physics. Being young and inexperienced, I had high expectations for pretty much everything. I had hoped that I would almost start a new life of a sort, especially since the years before my departure to Germany were tough.
After managing to surpass an eating disorder and overcome my feelings of low self worth, I was finishing high school with a genuine joy that I was finally gonna be able to focus my time solely on Physics. I loved Physics and I was going where I was supposed to go, and this was my only thought back then! I’d hoped, that once I was in Germany, I would be just as excellent student as I was in high school, meet and befriend people from all over the World, learn German, enjoy Germany, get a student job, join every possible club there was, adopt an unicorn, save the World from every problem it faces while wearing high heels, and on top of that – get enough sleep, eat healthily, and do my sports.
Then, reality hit me. The day lasted 24 hours, I had four to five long and challenging assignments a week, Physics was tough, the all nighters were considered normal, and so was feeling alone in a foreign country.
Although at the start of my studies I met a lot of people, participated in many events, and had great first month or so, soon I started to feel homesick and isolated. It was not that much about the classes as it was about my feeling that I belonged neither in Germany nor at my University. I had started to fear that my eating disorder could come back, as I was catching myself skipping on meals and doing ab workouts at 3am, all as a pathetic try to not admit to myself that I was struggling a lot.
What really was painful though, was the fact that I was willing to let all of my hard work from the previous years disappear, just because I was too proud to ask for help. Winning over my eating disorder and not letting it define me for the rest of my life was and still is my biggest achievement and somehow, during those first months in Germany I was almost ready to give up and loose my battle with it. I guess a person who had not experienced such a disease cannot understand how much mental and emotional strength is needed to resist the wish to just let yourself sink in oblivion and how much you need to fight in order to get up in the morning and do everything else except listen to your starving stomach singing.
So how did I manage to keep on fighting, stay on top of it all, and end up today pursuing a PhD in Physics in Germany? It was by creating a strong support system for myself.
For almost every young person who moves abroad to study or work, the following problem arises. The place where you are going is no longer the place where you will be the only one who is excellent at what s/he does. High school is over and your University collected the best of the best, put them into a carefully selected class, and left them all there to figure life out on their own. So, what do you do when you end up in a group where everyone loves the subject you are studying as much as you do, everyone is good at it, and everyone is alone? Do you compete, collaborate, or just try to survive the day? How can you actually thrive? You thrive by having a strong support system.
In many cases, it will be all about your support system. Of course, you have to work hard, be dedicated, and persistent, but to really persevere you need to have a support system. Everyone fails and everyone struggles and those who say that they do not – are lying. You do not want to be surrounded by lairs who will try to convince you that their life is all about suns and rainbows and who will in return, just make you feel more miserable.
You need to be around people who will not only be able to listen to you and empathize with you, but will also offer you the support you need. This support can be in a form of a warm meal, a friendly hug, or a wise advice. It is not so straightforward to find people you trust when you go abroad, but you have to try your best. A person who has your back when you need him or her can make the whole difference between taking the step forward to fight and taking the step backwards to quit.
Ideally, your support system needs to incorporate variety of people because it is impossible for a single person to fit all of your needs. Sometimes you would prefer to talk to your friends, sometimes to your partner, sometimes to your parents, grandparents, or siblings. Whoever these people are, you need to feel comfortable reaching out to them and showing vulnerability.
I no longer feel uncomfortable at the thought that I had an eating disorder or that I felt horrible during my first months in Germany precisely because I found my strength in facing the fact that I am not perfect and that it is just fine if I experience hardship. I cannot be more proud of myself for this. The truth is, when life (abroad) gets hard and you feel just like a cube that tries to fit into a ball, you need to find the courage to admit to yourself that you need help and only then reach out for it and put your thoughts into words.
So, who was part of my support system? First and foremost, it was of course my family: my parents and my sister.
My sister studied in Germany at the time as well, but we were not in the same city, so I did not get to see her as often as I would have liked to. Nevertheless, she empathized sincerely since she completed her bachelor studies at the same University and she was encouraging me by offering me an example how to overcome the obstacles.
My parents, though, were and still are in Macedonia. I guess missing them was also part of the reason why I was so sad at the start. When I was leaving I was thinking that I will be home for Christmas and thus, away from them only for a few months, but I neglected the fact that this was my first experience where I would be separated from them for so long.
Thus, I had no real coping mechanism at the start. The smartphone technology was not yet so developed, so we would skype from time to time, but I never wanted to really worry them. However, once I decided to be honest, my parents were for me what anchors are to boats. The Christmas break came at the right time and spending some time with them and talking extensively gave me the courage to continue. It was wonderful to see that they were not judging, but were instead willing to help. Of course, I noticed their fear for my well-being, but it meant so much to me to see them believing more in my strength as a fighter than as a quitter. Sometimes you need someone to remind you who you are when you take a wrong turn in your life and that is exactly what my parents did for me.
Another person who was part of my support system was my host mum. Let me explain briefly who she is and how we met. I completed my bachelor studies at Jacobs University in Bremen, which is a University that follows an American-like style of teaching and living. All students stayed on a campus – a little bubble where we got our education and fun. The University though, offered – and still offers – the wonderful possibility to connect the students with local families who would be the students’ connection to the German culture and language. Back in 2011, even before moving to Germany, I thought that it would be great to meet one of the families, so I filled in the application and waited for the Host Family Board to find the family or the person that would fit my character.
They put me in touch with a very lively woman, who loved yoga, motorbikes, music, traveling, and just living her life in an honest and optimistic way.
The first time when I met her was the very first time when my train arrived in Bremen. She was waiting on the platform in her colorful jacket and she was holding a wonderful bouquet of sunflowers. She was like the Sun herself and I could not resist smiling when I saw her.
Eight years later, I am sitting on a train from Berlin to Bremen so that I can meet her – the only person in Bremen that I stayed close with – again and my reminiscence of the start of our friendship is the motivation for this post.
I often think that even if I did not get anything out of my bachelor studies in Bremen (and I got a lot!, not only in terms of knowledge), they were worth it because they enabled me to meet my host mum. This woman was there with me through it all: my struggles, my break up with my first boyfriend at University, my graduation. My host mum visited me in Heidelberg when I was there for an internship and she even traveled to my home country Macedonia with me. She helped me move from Bremen to Freiburg for my master studies and then visited me there. We now finally have the chance to live close to one another again and I am honestly very happy about this.
Regardless of our difference in age, she is one of the best friends I could ask for. We can walk for hours, talk for days, share our thoughts and experiences. She is the type of person who calms you down just by being next to you and I feel genuinely blessed for having her in my life. What I really love about her is that she never tells me what to do, but always manages to ask the most insightful questions that motivate me to seek the answers and in return, find the solution to my issue. I guess this is also something you need from the people who make your support system: not someone who rushes to give you an advice, but instead someone who takes the time to encourage you to understand your problems.
Before I turn this post turns into a book, thank you for getting to the end. I hope that I managed to convince you that it is all right if you are sometimes feeling lonely, or weak, or like you can no longer continue, but also that your ability to communicate can be your way of finding the light at the end of the tunnel. Often, the problem is not whether we have the ability or the intellect to succeed at something, but rather whether we have the right mindset and character.
So once you notice your demons start to dominate, shut them up by talking out loud. Your support system can help you make the shift in your mind that you need to keep on going and trust me, once you overcome these hard times, you will come out much stronger, much more capable, much more self confident. And then, there will be no one standing between you and the fulfillment of your dreams. Good luck.