No experience comes with a label: it is simply just what it is. Our own judgement defines it. Perspectives change through the course of our experiences, and we can decide whether we want to emphasize the good or the bad about them.

My name is Gaia Molinaro, and I spent the second year of my Neuroscience BSc at the University of California at Davis (UCD). Studying abroad is often regarded as a fun, enriching moment in one’s life where you get to explore a new country. It definitely is. Yet, it comes with challenges. I thought I was prepared and open-minded, but adapting was not as easy as expected. Below you can read my story – don’t worry, there is a happy ending!

FALL QUARTER: A tough beginning

UC Davis did not offer on-campus accommodation for exchange students, so while taking my finals in May I also had to look for a place to stay for the following academic year. I used the students’ Facebook group for housing and found two seemingly nice girls my age who were looking for a third person to fill a room for the year: I kept in touch with them sporadically over the summer, until they sent me a lease to sign. Another important step I took while still in London was to register for courses, a task that cost me desperate nights trying to understand the system with overlapping courses and no handbook to follow. Anyway, when the time came to leave for the United States, I felt ready and excited.

I arrived in Davis on a sunny day and started imagining it being my home for the following nine months. School started, and I met a few nice people I would have a small talk with, but I had no true friendships yet. I didn’t think I’d experience culture shock: I lived my entire life in Italy, my mom is Israeli, and moving to London was not a tragedy at all. How different could it ever be in another Western country? As it turned out, very.

In general, Davis is a small college town and, compared to London, it could be defined as a tiny nice village with not much history or activity. People seemed nice and friendly (more than in Europe), yet somehow superficial in personal relationships. School was harder than I had anticipated, mostly because of the constant workload that is typical of a quarter system-based education.

Because of the time difference, it was hard to communicate with my family and friends back in Italy and London. During my stay, California faced severe fires that made the college shut down. Due to the bad air conditions, most of the people I knew went back home, whilst I was stuck miles away from mine…

“I’ll give it time” – I thought – that’s all I needed in order to adapt. So, I kept trying to enjoy little things that made my day: mostly, sunny moments and yoga lessons, cooking with fresh vegetables (I would get some of them for free through a campus initiative) and relaxing in my room.

I spent Thanksgiving in Chicago, hosted by my friend Daniel, who was an exchange student in London during my first year at King’s. It was probably the highlight of the quarter.

Back at UCD, I started going to more and more social events, pushing myself out of my comfort zone and ready to make friends in places where I knew no one, and eventually I found a few people I thought I could establish a real connection with.

Slowly, however, I started feeling more and more uncomfortable at my apartment. I was very different from my housemates in terms of personality, background, and habits. They did not seem willing to have any kind of friendly relationship with me; they were loud at night and often high – I started having an occasional new visitor: anxiety.