How Studying Abroad Saved My Academic Career

Cortez Johnson

When I was applying to university, I nearly decided to spend my undergraduate career in London. Due to a number of factors, I ended up choosing the City of Music instead. Nonetheless, I vowed to sound a semester abroad. After attending a study abroad fair my first year, I worked out a timeline that dictated that the best time for me to go abroad would be the autumn of my third year, and here I am.

The decision to study abroad, for some people, is a large one. For me, it was one of the easiest choices I've made. To put it kindly, I haven't necessarily thrived in Vanderbilt's environment. It's true, you will find that like many people at the University, I am overcommitted to a number of organizations that I care for, but also like many people the burden of responsibility weighs heavy. The second semester of second year, was by far my worst academically. I barely met my pre-med requirements. I was exhausted, stressed, angry, and honestly, depressed. Keep in mind that I hadn't left Nashville for more than a 2.5 weeks since arriving in August 2016. So when I finished my last (emergency) final in early May, I packed up my room, said farewell to to the empty halls where my residents had once lived, and felt the deepest relief of my lifetime. When I realized that I wouldn't be returning to Vanderbilt for 7 months, I felt like I could finally breathe again. I probably cried. Sometimes you don't realize the unhealthy conditions you're living in until you have an opportunity to leave them, and when the change hits you, it doesn't hold back. Like a man possessed, I began reflecting on all the decisions that had led me to such a desperate point, asking myself the infamous “why” question that never has just one answer. What I concluded was that at some point along the way, I lost touch with my foundation. I lost my self-discipline, my work ethic, my internal motivation. I went from a student who attempts to excel at everything, to one who after being knocked down so often, attempts only to survive.

Mental health is a topic that a lot of people in the black community shy away from. Although Vanderbilt has invested resources into treatment options, I'm not sure they've done enough to address the structural issues that lead to the development andor exacerbation of the illness itself. Many of the Americans here in Australia with me are here because they wanted a fun adventure. They drink excessively and party fervently. Although, I enjoy some of the adventure, and now that I am officially 21, some of the fun as well, I am here because I needed to be. I don't think I would have survived another semester at Vanderbilt. In fact, I dreaded the prospect. Frankly, I wasn't running toward Sydney as much as I was running away from Tennessee.

I understand that there are those who read this confession and describe my words as weak. What else did I expect coming from low socioeconomic class as a black male? But the fact that I am health enough to share these intimate moments of vulnerability hints at a resilience that I am quite proud to claim.

The time I spent at home, I was able to reconnect with my family. It's frightening how life moves forward even when you become distracted. My mother, for example, had aged, gracefully I'll admit, but still. My older brother had development quirks about himself that I didn't recognize. He was more talkative, louder. If I'm honest, when I first arrived I wasn't sure how I should behave around them or what places they held in my life currently. They were family, yes, but how should I interact with them as an adult? For a while I reverted to my middle school days (the last time we were all together), arguing over the slightest offense and campaigning for the rights of the marginalized. Like most families, politics is a topic on the “Do Not Discuss” list, at least when I'm in town. Unlike many families, religion, however, is open for business. I love discussing my faith with my family, because for me, they are some of the most honest Christians I know. Before arriving in Australia, I ran into trouble, major trouble. My Student Visa had been unexpectedly denied after weeks of waiting. I was, and I think this is the official medical term, a wreck. But my family's support and the support of my friends and church really helped me get through those 2.5 weeks of unexpected delay. In that time I realized how blessed I was. My mother adorned the role of her child's champion in honorable fashion. I was lucky enough to see her really fight for me, possibly for the last time. One of the things you learn at University is to be self-sufficient. That led me to falsely believing that I was going to have to fight this uphill battle alone. Fortunately, I was wrong. In my moment of hopelessness, I had an army galvanized behind me, shoving me forward. I had a family. To my greater surprise, there were even some Vanderbilt students in its numbers. When I arrived in Sydney, I felt rejuvenated. I could feel the hopes, prayers, and well-wisher of so many feeling me up with newfound conviction. I am not merely a survivor. I am one who aims to exceed expectations; I thrive. My experiences in Australia have confirmed that for me. As part of a forthcoming series about studying abroad I will discuss both the challenges and gifts of this experience, and why I believe everyone who can should take advantage of it. Until then, hold strong everyone; as they say Anchor Down.

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