Being an international student is as exciting as the books and Instagram posts make it out to be. It’s a life filled with adventure and opportunity, but it’s also one of the greatest challenges I’ve ever encountered.

In January of 2021 I flew from O.R Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, to Philadelphia International Airport. 21 hours of flying and an 8 hour layover in Doha later, and I was in the big city. Every girl coming from small suburban roots has had this dream in her mind: standing on a crowded street, lights flashing, cars racing. It was incredible.

It was, however, the middle of the pandemic. The city was closed. No restaurants. No tourism. Hardly any people. I had just come from hot summer days to this miserable, lonely, cold, and I was stuck in a hotel room with my mom before I could even move in. Amazon deliveries were delayed, so I couldn’t get a lot of the stuff I would need to live there. It was all we could do to try and stay positive.

Then I moved in. I didn’t know anybody, and I was thrust into a culture that is very different from my own. It didn’t help that I had been in lockdown for months before that – I’m sure I’m not the only one when I say I felt like I had no social skills left over from months alone in my house. Classes started, and suddenly it was a whirlwind. My mom left to go back home, and I was truly alone in a foreign country.

As with all things in life, things started to turn. I met other South Africans who related to what I was going through. I joined a sorority and met some of the most amazing girls. I was part of a degree program that felt like a small family.

As an international student you find that your low moments are very difficult. You can’t quickly go home for the weekend just for a reset. Many international students don’t go home every year, and with the pandemic that became even more challenging. You’re constantly far away from your people, your family, and old friends.

But you also make new friends. You learn to engage with different cultures and speak new languages. You see some of the world’s most amazing landmarks, and you experience freedom and opportunity like you never have before.

As with most things, being an international student has two sides to it. There are good things, and there are bad, but nothing will take away the gratitude I feel for my opportunity and my chance to study in the United States. Most importantly, I want to thank all the people who make Philadelphia feel like home. It’s because of them that I’m excited to return in the fall for my sophomore year.

By Gabrielle Coetzee