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Tragedy from afar

What it’s like being abroad during a remarkably tough semester at the University

You go abroad with this false hope, this foolish longing that someone will hit a pause button when your plane takes off and life at school won’t continue without you. That you’ll go back and everything will be just the same as you left it.

My usual seven-hour car ride from New York to Charlottesville was replaced by a much shorter one to the JFK Airport. How many times had I told my friends that going abroad with no one else from U.Va. was the best decision I’d ever made? The growing pit in my stomach and groups of girls hugging each other in the security line were making me reconsider. I didn’t speak a word of Italian, but neither did most. It was lonely knowing I was the only one fluent in Thomas Jefferson. Grounds were a long way away.

I’ve been in Italy for the events surrounding the tragedy of Hannah Graham’s disappearance, the Rolling Stone article and the backlash that ensued. The discussions, the somber camaraderie, the “this is not right and we need to do something,” the desperation and helplessness.

“You picked a good semester to be abroad,” one of my friends said. And I thought about the candlelight vigil, the protests, all the football games I’ve missed.

“Your school seems like a really messed up place,” said another. And I heard the “Good Ol’ Song” in my head, the emotional urgency of the panels held to discuss what we can do to combat sexual assault.

The gilded nostalgia I had for Grounds when I first landed in Florence is now laced with an uneasy detachment, a connection to a place I’m unsure I fully understand. And how could I, really?

I’ve read all the articles, watched interviews, grilled friends about what it’s been like. All the listservs I’ve cursed for emailing me everyday became a source of comfort, a way to keep myself in the loop. A way to imagine how I could’ve been involved back at school. I’ve kept myself educated, but from afar. I’m unable to be present at school, and my attempt at education feels incomplete. It’s the most skewed and emotion-laced FOMO I’ve ever felt.

A girl I’d only met once or twice before approached me on a class trip a weekend ago. She interrogated me, judged me and criticized the University. She had just read the Rolling Stone article. I barely knew her name.

It was a rare occasion, me being at a loss for words. I couldn’t articulate that I would forever stand by my school without sounding insensitive, how much pain and disgust I felt without sounding like I hated the University. I wanted to tell her how desperately U.Va. needed change, discussion, reformation, action. I’d never felt so far away from a place I called my home before. The knot in my stomach I’d felt at JFK tightened a little. Going abroad alone was harder than I thought.

The six-hour time difference means that most discussions are happening when I’m fast asleep. I found out about the suspension of fraternities from the list of “Trending Topics” on the side of my Facebook newsfeed. I was hearing the news as if I were a spectator to my own home.

I remembered my own first year, and it seemed to mirror my time abroad. I knew not one other student on my first day of college and was just a short girl from New York among a sea of 15,000. I found out about which fraternities were having parties through girls I barely knew — girls who were more in the know than I was. I had fun at those parties. I still do.

I made some great friends that first semester, friends who stayed up with me until dawn in the library and accompanied me on spontaneous road trips. Friends who brought me water during that Friday morning discussion and sat with me for hours in the dining hall. Some of those friends became involved in Greek life — some even in the fraternity mentioned in Rolling Stone. It’s hard to reconcile and articulate how much those friends mean to me while still expressing my extreme disgust and anger about what was portrayed in the article. Miles and miles away, I feel a little bit like that lonely first year again.

Yet I drink espresso at breakfast, eat pasta as an appetizer and live out an Art History textbook. My Italian has gotten no better, and I think my English has gotten worse. I’ve laughed and traveled and eaten and drank and have had some of the best few months of my life since being in Florence. I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world.

I feel at home here, I think. And I think I’ll feel at home back on Grounds too. But I can’t shake the feeling that returning to school in January will be like studying abroad in a foreign country all over again.

Annie is a regular Top 10 columnist for the Life section.

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