Semester Abroad, Global Correspondents Turning Tears to Touchdowns

February 15, 2022
By Bebe Hodges, CAS '23

University of Cambridge, Pembroke College - United Kingdom

Bebe is one of the Semester Abroad Global Correspondents writing and sharing her experience abroad during the Spring 2022 semester. Follow along with the group of correspondents on our blog and look out for their images on the @pennabroad Instagram feed. 

I didn’t want to study abroad at Cambridge. As ridiculous and privileged an idea like this may sound, the thought intruded my mind a week before an airplane was scheduled to take me to the University of Cambridge for the next six months. My family teased that I was apprehensive just because I didn’t want to miss the Cincinnati Bengals’ playoff game going on during my flying time. As big of a Bengals fan as I am that was, of course, far from the truth. Instead, I cried for seven nights before my flight because I was terrified.

I told myself studying at Cambridge was everything I had wanted and waited for. I had applied January 2020 for the spring 2021 abroad program, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s onslaught, the 2021 program was cancelled, and I had deferred my placement to spring 2022. For two years, I had waited in anticipation to study social anthropology one-on-one as part of the supervision system, to engage in centuries-old traditions at the University of Cambridge, and to meet new faces from around the world. The word “Cambridge” had brought a tremendous smile to my face. I felt so grateful to have been accepted to the program, to have the Penn resources to apply, and to have the financial resources to study abroad. But as the date to leave for England approached closer and closer, my mind started remembering the cold loneliness I felt at Penn.

Penn had been my dream too. But, when I think back, my memories of freshman year are blurred by the tears I cried each night, homesick and feeling out of place on the East Coast. If I struggled being in a different state, how would I be okay on a different continent?

I pushed these thoughts aside and made it to the Cincinnati airport. I reminded myself that this was an opportunity of a lifetime, and I felt so incredibly lucky to have the support and resources to pursue it. But as I said goodbye to my family, the anxiety that sat in a pit in my stomach tightened.

I wore my Bengals jersey on the plane. I was rooting for my team in spirit. I also was holding on to feelings of home. Bebe wearing her jersey and posing with friends

About ten hours later, I landed in London. The next few hours consisted of a sleepy cab ride to Cambridge, arriving at my college-owned house, and taking a long, long nap. That first night, I met my three housemates—Alistair from Vassar, Bee from Cornell, and Madison from Barnard. We chowed down on squash soup and pork stew that Pembroke provided to all study abroad students. We chatted between us, but the anxious pit in my stomach stayed put.  

The next night, something changed. Alistair, Madison, and I stayed up talking in our common room. Casually, naturally, our conversations shifted to vulnerabilities. We started vaguely discussing issues that we were dealing with, until it became a late-night hour of sharing and talking about struggles. I opened up about things I hadn’t even said a word about with some of my friends from Penn. I wondered if this wasn’t going to be like my freshman year experience at Penn after all.

So far, it hasn’t been. At Cambridge, I spend my days visiting the servery (think, dining hall) or cafes with other semester students or Pembroke students. We study together at the library, pub-hop together, host movie nights in my house’s common room, and explore the city of Cambridge. When I got sick in the first week here, other semester students and Pembroke staff members checked in on me daily, asking how I was feeling and picking up groceries and meals for me.

I don’t feel alone. I feel like I have a community.

There’s something about participating in a study abroad program that fosters this feeling of togetherness. I can’t quite put my finger on it. But the people I’m surrounded by feel like they have similar interests and values as me, even though we hail from a wide range of backgrounds. At the University of Cambridge, most of your learning occurs through independent research, which means there’s a lot of flexibility in your schedule. This flexibility has allowed the semester students to hang out and get to know each other, beginning to feel at ease with one other.

This is not to say that you must have deep-night conversations with your housemates to feel at place in your abroad program, or that every aspect of your abroad experience is going to be perfect or free from homesickness. But I’m beyond grateful to have met 40 amazing semester students and dozens of Pembroke college students through my stay here.

I still wear my Bengals jersey, even in England. The Bengals continued to the playoffs all the way to the Super Bowl for the first time in 30+ years (I’m not going to talk about how that game ended because… those will be a different kind of tears), and now the Bengals will forever be connected to my time abroad. When I wore my jersey to a pub on a playoff night, I became friends with some Brits who promised they’d cheer for my team against the Titans. I went to a Super Bowl party where I met an American student in another Cambridge program and her British friend wearing Bengals’ stripes. People across the abroad program started rooting for the Cincinnati team, even learning the Bengals’ “Who Dey” chant. And on the night of the Super Bowl, I stayed up until 4 am, snuggled on the couch in my living room—where it all began—with some of my closest friends here. While I wore my PJs and a Burrow jersey, all of us together cheered for my favorite team an ocean away.

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The Semester Abroad (SA) program offers undergraduate students the opportunity to study in a new global community through extended study for a semester or year. Penn Abroad partners with top institutions around the globe and collaborates with Penn’s undergraduate schools to offer programs for students across academic disciplines.